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Also, the author is on break until March 6th, March 16th for Public readers! See latest announcement for reasons for the delay.

 

 

Tkrn realized he was not good with women.

Not just ‘Drake women’, or ‘non-Gnoll females’. He felt, in this moment, that he needed a blanket statement for the female gender.

He’d had…luck. If luck meant sex. But was that the end-goal? It also occurred to the Liscorian [Guardsman] that he didn’t have much luck with long-term relationships. Perhaps it was a sign.

But he’d deluded himself up until this moment into thinking he was ‘average’, or ‘decent’, or other lies young men told themselves, regardless of species, at interacting with the opposite sex.

The Gnoll didn’t think so, now. He watched Inkar cry.

Really cry. Not tear up at a sad story, but have a breakdown. A [Guardsman] saw that—sometimes. But even then, rarely. You heard the bad stories, when those kinds of tears were warranted.

In this case? It was Tkrn’s fault. He looked at Inkar, then panicked and went to get someone from her tribe. But who…?

He found Krshia instead. She hit him.

“You idiot, Tkrn, you! What did you say?”

“I—I—was talking about Liscor. And I told her…”

Krshia’s expression changed. She hurried after him, and paused to kick him in the rear.

He’d told Inkar about Erin. And he hadn’t done it well. Or perhaps he had. He’d built Erin up and then—neglected to lead with the present. Inkar had grown excited to meet the [Innkeeper] who had built something wonderful. Then he had to admit she was dead.

“Dead.”

She sniffed. The [Traveller] was wiping her tears away on a handkerchief. Krshia raised her paw, but Tkrn had stayed out of range.

“My nephew is a fool, Honored Inkar, yes. He should have told you better. She is…there are more. Did he say that?”

Inkar nodded. She gulped, hard.

“More. Like me. But the airplane. We are here. I am not alone. I feared I was, you see? But how many…?”

How many were dead? The young woman from Kazakhstan’s fears were reflected in her eyes. She had seen the burned wreckage of a…vehicle…that could have held a hundred people. More. A ship of the skies.

It boggled Tkrn’s mind. A ‘plane’. But Inkar was convinced that even if only five bodies had been found, the other people were also…dead.

It was beginning to dawn on Krshia, as well as the other Gnoll Chieftains of the Longstalker’s Fang tribe and Greenpaw tribe, just how serious this was.

It wasn’t one. It wasn’t two, or a few. And—Krshia had told Erin she thought many Gnoll tribes would have found Earthers if they were there.

Now, the Gnoll wondered how many had fallen out of the sky. Or suffered fates like Erin’s from the start. Her fur prickled, remembering where Imani’s group had appeared. On a Creler nest.

As far as she could tell, there were no other strange Humans among the Meeting of Tribes. At least—in the open like Inkar.

The incident of a few days ago had been a bit of a talk. A dramatic reveal of the Gnoll of Stars, really. A few people talked about the Longstalkers honoring a Human as one of them. But thankfully, larger events eclipsed it each day.

But one significant event was Inkar. Krshia had realized she was from Earth and after some delicate inquiries, the young woman had learnt that the Silverfangs knew of Earth too.

Again, Tkrn’s fault. Krshia had really given it to him then. But it was an unfortunate mistake. Inevitable, in a sense.

For Tkrn’s star had risen. Unaccountably, he’d forged a connection with the Gnoll of Stars, Lehra Ruinstrider, along with Inkar, and even met with others. The [Strategists] from Baleros, a [Shamanic Warrior] from the Plain’s Eye tribe…

A passing connection, perhaps. But that was how bonds were forged. And Krshia Silverfang and her sister, the Chieftain of the Silverfangs, Akrisa, were not about to let a bond, even tenuous, pass with such important tribes. They’d ordered Tkrn to, well, Tkrn himself into good graces.

It had mixed results. But Inkar had at least been a stroke of luck. Chieftain Akrisa had compared it to stepping in a cow pat and realizing there was gold underneath. Krshia had repeated it several times to Tkrn.

After a few days, the initial gathering of the Meeting of Tribes was settling into a proper event. The first wave of introductions were done, and it was time to really get to what mattered. Big decisions all tribes voted or debated. Sales of vast amounts of valuables. Not just day-trading; the Silverfangs traded tons of their iconic silver jewelry, for instance, at their stalls. But real sales.

Like, say—you were at war with this Drake city and your tribe needed help to force them to surrender or fight them off a mine or something valuable? You could hire the Steelfur tribe to go to war for you. If the price was right, and you were the right tribe, with the right favors.

In other ways, it could be arranged marriages. The Ekhtouch Tribe lived for meetings like this. But every tribe really wanted to collect favors. Or push their agenda.

So—alliances were forming. And one of the new, unexpected ones, was the Longstalker’s Fang tribe, the Greenpaw tribe, and the Silverfangs.

It surprised the Gnolls of all three tribes. Oor and Orreh, the brother and sister, the former still nursing bruises he hadn’t been allowed to heal from the stupid fight he’d caused by sleeping in, expressed excitement to Inkar as she came back from talking with Tkrn.

They didn’t notice her tears. That was actually an interesting flaw of Gnolls she’d learned to exploit. They tended to smell or hear your emotions as much as they visually checked. So if she tricked their noses, she sometimes tricked them.

“Why, Orreh?”

The Gnoll [Stalker] grinned.

“Silverfangs are rich. They’re not the best tribe, but they’re in the upper range of tribes you’d want on your side. We’re in the middle. I’m not sure how Chieftain Eska got them on our side, but that’s good. They’ll speak for our interests in an alliance. Greenpaw too!”

The Silverfangs were less happy about the arrangement, but they trusted Akrisa had her reasons. Besides—an alliance was good for all.

The Greenpaws were probably happiest about it all. If Silverfang was upper, Longstalker’s Fang was middle, then Greenpaw was low-tier, to simplify things.

When the three Chieftains met, with a few extras like [Shamans] and Krshia, Chieftain Orelighn made that plain.

“Since these…Earthers…are not as rare as we thought, perhaps their value is a bit less, yes? But we now know this—this plane is expensive. Important. I am willing to put all of it with this alliance that our tribes might gain something, although it pains me to use the work of others—and the possessions of the dead. But Greenpaw needs much. I thank you, Chieftain Akrisa, Honored Krshia, for this alliance.”

They nodded. Krshia hadn’t been sure about just—telling everyone. Tkrn had let it slip and she’d nearly hung him out to dry, but it had been Akrisa who admonished her reaction. She repeated the very same line she’d said to Krshia.

“We are all Gnolls, yes? Time for secrets is past. Earth…technology, wonders and dangers from another world—all tribes must know of it soon, or at least, the Chieftains. A secret like this is a strange knife. I fear it will twist in our paws the longer we hold it.”

Krshia shifted uncomfortably. She had forgotten she and her elder sister didn’t see eye-to-eye, and she was the junior and not a Chieftain here. Moreover, Akrisa was right. Hoarding secrets was a Drake move.

Chieftain Eska nodded heavily. But it was Honored Weaver Deskie who spoke.

“My heart for Inkarr. She learns of her people’s deaths too much. That I should live to see such strange events in the Waning World…well, is this to be presented to all Chieftains?”

“When they gather. But I hope to bring more tribes of like mind into an alliance.”

“What have we to offer if the knowledge of Earth is to be given to all?”

Orelighn frowned. It was Krshia who looked up. The others turned to her and she spoke.

“A consensus, Chieftains, on what will be done with the Earthers. To protect, help, and aid, rather than exploit or kidnap.”

Eska’s eyes brightened. Deskie smiled.

“That is wisdom. And that should be the thing on which all tribes agree. Let us share, then. To friendship with another world, rather than anything else.”

She lifted a bowl. At last, they all ate; they had been sharing a communal pot and meal, as was traditional. They would eat and drink as friends and allies.

Krshia was glad of it. She was glad she thought she could trust the other Chieftains. Because it was a time of action, now. No time to sit on your tail. Akrisa had her tribe, but Krshia contributed as much value as she could.

 

—-

 

The Gnolls had heard about the failed attempt. At least—Elirr had. He was conflicted.

“One cannot simply send little Mrsha away before Lyonette returns. She is coming in a week and a bit. Krshia will do without her until the height of the Meeting of Tribes. But I will oblige her other request.”

So saying, he stared at Kevin. The young man blinked a few times. Then he sat up.

“Yes, hello! Solar Cycles. How can I help you?”

The [Beast Trainer] stared at the [Mechanic]. Kevin sheepishly passed a hand over his face.

“Sorry. It’s been an all-nighter, alright? Pelt’s trick made everyone start demanding adamantium frames…”

“I wish I’d seen it. It sounded badass. Smithing in the center of a firestorm?”

Joseph twisted in his seat in the secret Earth rooms. Kevin shook his head.

“Scared the hell out of me. So…what are we supposed to do, Mister Elirr?”

He looked at the Gnoll. He, Joseph, and Rose were sitting there. Galina was missing. Troy and Leon were exempted from this talk. Imani looked exasperated.

“You’re all too calm! There’s someone from Earth at the Meeting of Tribes!”

“Exactly!”

Rose shot to her feet. She was trembling.

“Someone from Kazakhstan? Are you sure?”

“That’s cool but—I have no idea where that is.”

Joseph raised a hand. Rose turned on him.

“That’s not the point, Joseph! They’ve been there the entire time! Inkar? We’ve got to meet her!”

“What, all of us? I’m busy with the football team.”

Forget football! That’s not important—”

“I think that’s what Elirr is saying. One of us needs to go. So that’s you, Rose. Besides, we’ve known there are more people from Earth since we met Ryoka and Erin—since the phone call. This is big, but unless Inkar knows more than us, she should come here.

The Californian pointed out. Rose, likewise from the ‘states’—Elirr had no idea about the places on Earth, but was trying to at least remember—nodded slowly.

“That’s true. So you want me, Elirr?”

“Yes. If you are willing to come, we will send you as fast as possible. It will not be…Wonders of Izril or whatever that carriage service was, but almost as fast. You will have to ride a long time.”

Rose gulped.

“I’m bad at riding. Can I get a carriage?”

Elirr sighed. And already problems cropped up. They would have to arrange at least twenty Gnolls to protect Rose; no one wanted her to get hurt on the way there. But then he saw Kevin grin.

“No problem. You can ride one of the new bikes. Take it there, as a present from the Silverfangs. That makes the most sense.”

Rose blinked. Elirr’s jaw opened.

“You would give one away, Kevin, just like that?”

“Wasn’t that what you were going to ask us? You wanted more than just Rose and Mrsha. You need the Silverfang tribe to be, like, important, right?”

The young man sat back. He was still yawning, but he was hunting around in his belt pouch for his phone. He turned it on, but not to play games or pass the time re-watching something. Rather, he was using the smartphone…like a smartphone.

“Let me check the store’s inventory. We’re still wrapping up Fetohep’s orders, but we do the ‘cheap’ bikes pretty fast. I can spare one magic-bike for Rose, and Selys might actually kill me, but she’ll understand. Let’s see. What else can we ship out?”

“Can I have Montressa or Bezale? I need someone with a [Repair] spell. Inkar has a smartphone, right?”

“I did not ask. But Krshia has asked for all things that might help Inkar. I thought—perhaps some letters?”

The Earthers gave Elirr a blank look. Joseph began to snort before he caught himself.

“What, for encouragement?”

“That’s a good idea! She has to be lonely. She’d probably like someone writing to her, even with Rose…Kazakhstan. Can she read English well?”

Imani defended Elirr. Rose put her hands down and pushed herself up.

“No, no. That’s not important. I mean, write it if you want, Imani. And I’ll definitely deliver it. But don’t you see? We need to impress the other tribes! And I think we can. Elirr, you said they have an airplane?

Elirr nodded. The Earthers sobered.

“Our Father, Who art in heaven…those poor people. Whatever got us split an airplane in two. They—they must have no idea what happened on Earth.”

Joseph muttered, whispering a prayer and clasping his hands together for a second. The others nodded. Rose chewed at her lip.

“…But it’s an airplane. I hate to say it, but—I need to get Bezale and find Galina. Bezale has [Repair] scrolls, I’m sure of it. And Galina might be able to give me all the Players of Celum’s scripts. They have to be worth something.”

“Hold up. Are we giving the Silverfangs everything? And—are you seriously suggesting [Repairing] the airplane and selling electronics at the Meeting of Tribes?”

Kevin sat forwards. Imani looked alarmed.

“Is that a good idea, Rose?”

“Well—I don’t know! Maybe! We want them to be the best tribe, right? It’s a competition?”

“Of sorts.”

Elirr murmured. He was surprised at how many ideas the Earthers were tossing around. Rose looked at the others.

“It’s not great. But plays, Kevin’s bikes…Krshia’s helped Erin. We should trust the Gnolls, right?”

“Well, they knew about us and Earth and haven’t told anyone. So I’m for that.”

Joseph pointed to Elirr, sitting in the secret rooms. Kevin scratched at his head.

“I guess. There’s nothing we can do about the plane. What are we gonna do, run down there and steal it from them with the biggest bag of holding ever?”

“Yes. That’s true. But not all the tribes are alike.”

Imani’s quiet voice silenced the others. They looked at the [Cook], and then Rose spoke.

“Well, I’m going. And they have an airplane. Better Krshia be leading the Gnolls than…anyone else. I want to meet Lehra Ruinstrider, anyways. She sounds amazing. And all the Gnoll tribes! The Ruinstrider, Steelfur—are the Ekhtouch as sexy as people say?”

The old Gnoll’s mouth opened.

“How do you know so much about the tribes, Miss Rose?”

He looked incredulously at her. Rose just gave him a blank stare.

“Magazines.”

“…Magazines?”

Everyone blinked at her. Rose sighed.

“Erin started it. And Olesm and Drassi. They’ve been showing up in Runner’s Guilds on sale. I buy all of them. Here—I’ll find it. I need to go to my rooms. Unless Mrsha’s hogging the door, I won’t be a second…”

She came back in half a minute with a magazine. Elirr blinked at it. Rose waved it at him.

“It’s a Gnoll-magazine on tribes and stuff. It’s selling hot in the cities, among City Gnolls, actually. You didn’t know?”

Elirr was clearly hanging out with the wrong, older crowd. Rose was hip to the hop with it. Whatever it was, which was apparently, magazines.

Gnoll Today, Here Tomorrow—this week, all about Ekhtouch! The 20 hottest Gnolls, ranked! You won’t guess who’s #1!

Some things copied Earth too much. More evil had entered the world, seeping through from Earth. Kevin blinked at the tabloid-esque magazine. Joseph leaned over.

“Why do I actually want to read that?”

“Dude, right? Alright, let’s let Rose meet sexy Gnolls. What are we sending with her? Not the laptop. Numbtongue plays games on it and he’s super-depressed. But maybe…”

By the end of the day, Rose was packed up and ready to leave tomorrow by bike. But even before that—Elirr was sending word to Krshia. Value was more than a person or objects. It was knowledge.

 

—-

 

“Alumininium?”

The next day, Krshia was talking with Inkar, Tkrn, and an excited Orelighn and Eska.

Aluminum. Is that what is in the plane’s metal?”

Inkar looked at Krshia. The Gnoll woman grinned.

“According to Kevin, yes. And he would probably know. That is the metal you salvaged, Orelighn. Apparently the Dwarves know something of it, but it is a hard-to-produce metal for us.”

“Is it particularly strong? We bent it—perhaps it is what allowed the thing to fly?”

“Er, no…it is not the strongest. It is only uniquely lightweight and strong combined.”

“Oh.”

The Gnoll was palpably disappointed. It wasn’t a super-metal, then. The Chieftain of the Greenpaws clearly wanted some fantastic development to come out of the airplane.

As it so happened, there was.

“Kevin has written to us—he is a [Mechanic], Inkar. The one who made the bicycle.”

“Oh, he is? Amazing!”

Inkar was delighted. Krshia nodded. Kevin kept proving to have more Kevin-depths.

“Yes, and Rose, who is coming, will have things for you, Inkar. But he, Kevin, says, your ‘phone’ may be fixed with a simple spell. [Repair].”

Really? But I broke it to…”

Inkar showed Krshia the cannibalized phone she’d broken strategically to provide sparks. Krshia was unsure; it looked bad, but she was optimistic.

“It may be possible. We must simply find a scroll—Rose will bring some, or a [Mage]. But that may be unwise…similarly, Kevin believes some of the ‘electronics’ may be salvaged if you removed them carefully, Orelighn. The—er—er—‘seat monitors’ that you described, or ‘light bulbs’ overhead and such. [Repair] may work wonders.”

Unfortunately, and this was a Gnoll problem—they had no [Mages] they could readily call upon. Of all the species…well, Krshia had Mrsha for proof positive of that…even if likewise, there was another Gnoll who could prove there was magical potential in them like [Mages] used.

The point was, the Earthers had ideas. First of which was to ask Orelighn to see what parts of the airplane were really useful.

“Can you send word to your tribe, Orelighn? If they can be repaired, Kevin thinks some parts can be fashioned into a ‘flash light’, or perhaps a ‘fan’ out of the airplane. He would need to connect them up, and he says that if the engine or other parts survived, he would like to see them all.”

Kevin was especially interested in the jet engine’s propeller system.

“I will have my tribe check. It would be easiest, though, if this expert could come there…but we will check at once!”

Orelighn hurried off. Inkar was excited too, but Rose would take a while to get here, even by magic bicycle.

“I will speak with Chieftain Eska about finding a [Repair] spell for your phone, Inkarr.”

“Thank you, Honored Krshia!”

Inkar beamed. Tkrn waved a paw.

“What am I to do then, Aunt?”

She looked at him. Krshia scratched at her head and Tkrn deflated. She grinned.

“Your job, Tkrn, is to go out and make friends! Perhaps meet Lehra if possible, yes? Or the others? You, and Inkar, perhaps. Take Orreh and Oor with you for safety this time, but leave the matters of Earth to us for now. Bring us back more tribes to meet—it is hard to attract the famous ones’ attention since every tribe wants to do it! Oh, and nephew—”

She grabbed Tkrn’s arm as Inkar turned, delighted to be able to leave the camp again. Krshia whispered.

“Make her cry again, and I will make you cry, yes?”

She made an ear-twisting gesture. He winced.

 

—-

 

Truly, Inkar and Tkrn realized, there was something nice about a tribe’s hierarchy. For all Tkrn found elements objectionable—in moments like this, he and the young woman could just let the Chieftains worry about the worrisome stuff and enjoy themselves while doing their bit!

You didn’t need to bear the weight of the tribe alone. And Inkar was excited to be out again.

“Eska and Deskie would not let me after I got in trouble. Especially because only a few people know…about me. But you can escort me?”

She glanced at him. Tkrn grinned sheepishly. He gave her a salute.

“Guardsman Tkrn will do his best, Miss Inkar.”

She laughed at that. It was a strange, fast friendship they had made after he had come to her ‘rescue’, mainly by getting his face punched by Steelfur Gnolls repeatedly. But Tkrn felt like it was his responsibility, as much as he liked Inkar.

Here was a Human, from Earth, that he could protect. This time, she was in front of him and he would take a crossbow bolt for her.

Of course, other Gnolls made it weird by assuming things. Dekava had no shortage of raised brows and pointed sniffs—as if she couldn’t tell they hadn’t had sex!

Some of the Silverfangs openly put it down to a ‘weird skin fetish’ that City Gnolls got. The Liscor-Gnolls understood, even if they didn’t know.

“So you are Tkrn, the Gnoll who saved my stupid, lazy brother. I thought you were ten feet tall and strong as a [Berserker], to hear Oor say it, yes? I am Orreh!”

The [Stalker] and Oor met Tkrn and Inkar, as part of the unofficial bodyguards. Oor grinned at Tkrn and they clasped arms.

“This time, let’s not get into trouble, yes? I am still healing!”

“That’s because you had to have breakfast and let poor Inkarr wander around! Well—we have moved next to the Silverfangs, so no one will complain we are in the inner camps, now. Let’s see the Meeting of Tribes!”

Thus, once more, Tkrn, Inkar, and the two Gnolls left their camp for the Meeting of Tribes. They found it was in full celebration. Well, more so than usual.

 

—-

 

“Free drinks! One per Gnoll! And no trying to fool my eyes! [Fair Share]—try it and I will smack you!”

A Gnoll was shouting boisterously from the first table as the quartet walked out into a rush of noise in the main camp. Hundreds, hundreds of barrels of Gnollish drink had been rolled out.

“Free drinks? Can I get one for my friend? She’s part of my tribe! All four of us!”

Orreh’s ears perked up. The Gnoll [Brewmaster] eyed Orreh, but snorted and handed the drinks over in four mugs.

“Put them in a bin when you’re done! And for the young Human woman, why not? We owe Humans today! Just remember—the Plain’s Eye tribe is providing the drinks! And there’s some hot venison being served—also free!”

Free food, free drinks! Tkrn sipped at the alcoholic drink, grinning. And free food! The tribes were being generous and handing out free stuff to all the Gnolls present—as well as paid stuff. Even for the Meeting of Tribes, that was rarer; there was always something one tribe provided to show off or garner goodwill, but a number of tribes had pitched in.

“What are we celebrating today?”

He asked some Gnolls who were headed to dance together. They were following a catchy, fast, drumbeat in the distance and howls. The Gnolls grinned and laughed.

“Why, justice of course, kin! Hadn’t you heard? The monster, the Prime Minister of Belchan is dead! The one who slaughtered our tribes!”

Tkrn blinked. Today was the day Lyfelt’s execution had been announced. Other peoples took it differently, or didn’t pay much attention outside of the news cycle.

The Gnolls were celebrating it.

“Justice! Did you see the trial yesterday?”

“I did. But that [Queen]—the Arbiter Queen of Jecrass, she was smart and young, but she should have asked us, yes? We would have given her an answer quickly enough!”

“Well, all the Humans had the right idea. Hello, Miss Human! Good job!”

“Th-thank you?”

It was odd for Inkar to realize this was the celebration of a man’s death. But even Tkrn had no sympathy. Orreh just shook her head when Inkar expressed confusion.

“Why not celebrate a tribe-killer’s death? I wonder if it was painful. I hope it was. The dead Gnolls won’t come back. But at least there’s free food and drink! Let’s see what the attractions are—unless you want to dance?”

They changed day by day. Some were always the same, like tribes selling goods, but any number of events might occur, like the Woven Bladegrass’ combat tournament.

The great tribes. Now he was here, Tkrn was learning them.

Or at least, hearing the names by repetition.

Az’muzarre, Plain’s Eye, Gaarh Marsh…just hearing them told you which ones mattered. They were some of the ‘old guard’ though, to use a Drake expression.

There were hot newcomers. Demas Metal for novelty, Ruinstrider for their Named Adventurer…

And Woven Bladegrass.

“They do not have any shops, do they? I keep hearing them spoken of—but do they sell Bladegrass? What is that?”

Inkar turned to the others as her keen ears picked up the same conversations as the others. Orreh grinned.

“Bladegrass isn’t a toy, Inkarr. Nor can you make many things out of it. Not like…a bag, or other things.”

“But they are called Woven Bladegrass…”

“Ah. That’s a technique they use. Bladegrass by itself is…weak, you see? Sharp, but fragile. If you walk through it, it will cut you bloody, unless you’re Steelfur, I guess. But if you weave it so—you can make something sharp. But weak. They use it for arrows. Little pellets they throw from slings.”

“Oh. Do they sell it?”

“No. The Woven Bladegrass isn’t that sort of tribe. I don’t think they have many…artisans. They probably have [Crafters]. But they do not sell things. They are a proud tribe, yes?”

Tkrn shifted. Orreh and Inkar noticed.

“You do not think so, Guardsman Tkrn?”

The Plains Gnoll looked at him. Tkrn hesitated. He was more keenly aware of being a ‘City Gnoll’, so he was unsure…but he felt like he had to say it.

“From what I heard, in Liscor, the Woven Bladegrass tribe is thought of more as…[Raiders], Inkar, Orreh. That is what the cities say, though—didn’t they sack several Drake cities?”

Orreh tilted her head. Oor grinned.

“Do they say that? That is a Drake perspective. We think of Woven Bladegrass as a tribe who will fight Drake cities. Especially the bad ones.”

“Only the bad ones?”

Inkar pressed them. Her two tribe members hesitated. That was the question, wasn’t it? Tkrn decided to change the subject.

“They must be fearsome fighters, then. As bad as Steelfur? My fist still hurts.

“Oh, of course! Maybe not as bad as Steelfur because their Chieftain has his great Skill—but high-level. They’ll have a big voice at the Meeting of Tribes; they didn’t even really have a presence twenty years ago. Their Chieftain is new. Fierce.”

Just how fierce, the four saw moments later. Someone set up a howl, and when everyone looked their way, bellowed.

It wasn’t a warning howl, more of a ‘look at me!’ thing. Inkar saw a young Gnoll point as some aggrieved adults or curious people turned his way.

Foot races have begun on the south side! Smaller competitions, and a large race by all the winners of the small ones! Ten gold if you win a short race, a hundred for the big winner! Horse races, same place! Same rewards—only horses!”

Instantly, a lot of Gnolls flowed that way. Inkar laughed in delight.

Races?

It was something she knew well. Her people on Earth had that custom, and she began to drag the other three over. Ironically, Inkar was a lot more into the idea than the other three Gnolls.

“I don’t ride horses. And I’m not fast enough to win a footrace. I guess we can watch—if Relc was here, he’d compete. What about you, Orreh, Oor?”

“We’re no good. Orreh likes lying in tall grass and waiting for her prey and I’m only decent.”

Orreh sighed. Inkar’s eyes were sparkling, though.

“Could I race? I’m good on horses!”

That was…true. Orreh and Oor exchanged a glance. Orreh grinned gamely.

“I could get your horse, Inkar. But don’t get your hopes up—it might be Gnolls only.”

 

—-

 

It was not. Or at least, the riding competition wasn’t. Footraces turned out to be Gnoll-only. A curious distinction, perhaps due to the culture of Gnolls.

They raised nomadic animals like horses, whereas they were well aware that a Courier or City Runner existed among all peoples. In fact, since many Gnolls didn’t live in cities, they were underrepresented here. So to prevent a sweep of the footraces, Gnolls only ran.

But they were proud of their riding abilities, so Inkar actually signed up. It turned out there were multiple competitions, and it wasn’t as dull as Tkrn feared.

“Sprints, here! Who will compete in obstacle racing? Long distance—twice around the entire Meeting of Tribes—and jumping over there!”

A race was going on, staggered, such that the audience could pivot from footrace to horseback races without waiting for more than a minute at most. And it was entertaining!

“Three, two, one…go!

Gnolls took off on foot, racing each other to be first to run a thousand feet. There were no shorter sprints, Gnollish attitude being that if you couldn’t run a thousand feet, were you running?

Well, it was a bias that came from a people who travelled far. The other race was ten thousand feet, and had a different kind of runner.

Tkrn saw lots of young Gnolls who clearly thought they were fast realize that they were, in fact, competing with dedicated runners. Fast they might be, but they fell behind a City Runner, a high-level [Warrior], three [Barbarians], and one of the younger [Shamans]. They blazed across the ground, almost as fast as a regular horse.

You! Disqualified!

A Gnoll howled at the [Shaman], who was using magic. Skills were game; magic was not.

“They run quick!

Orreh clapped her hands and whistled or howled as the first racers crossed the line. The City Runner was in front—until the [Warrior] charged the last hundred feet, so fast that the celebrating Runner was raising his arms and waving as the other Gnoll passed him.

“[Run Down Opposition]! Hah! Did you see that?”

Gnolls laughed as the poor City Runner hung his head. Tkrn chortled—then saw the riders begin.

They were no less fast, but there was more variety in the races. Less sprints and more displays of riding skill. One group raced out of sight around the camp. No fighting was allowed, or direct interference with other horses, but they were allowed to use tricks. He saw dust clouds appear, one [Rider] jump all the others—even a [Horse Tamer] whistle and have all the horses behind her stop.

Another disqualification. Orreh came over. She handed Tkrn something.

“Snacks! You buy next time, yes? Silverfangs have money, so let’s share it!”

She grinned and nudged him. Tkrn was about to protest that he didn’t have that much money, until he recalled that Krshia had given him more thanks to his important status. Good naturedly, he nodded, reached into the simple bag of tightly-woven reeds or grass and took a pawful of…

Popcorn? He stared at it. It was reddish—Oor and Orreh were already fighting over it.

“How is this popcorn here? Where did you get it, Orreh?”

“They are already selling it, yes? This is the best one. Try it!”

Like Liscor, ideas spread fast. Tkrn did and his eyes widened.

“It tastes like beef!

“Beef powder or flavor. So good. Nom. Oor, if you eat it all, I will hurt you! Save some for Inkarr!”

Where had she gone? Tkrn looked around, worried—then saw Inkar was on the horse that Oor had brought, riding her around. He was about to trot over, although she looked fine, when someone called his name.

“Here now. Is that…wait, I know this one. Tkrn? And Inkar, right?”

It was a deep voice for such a small man. Tkrn turned and found Merrik standing there. The Dwarf waved.

“Hello! Aren’t you the ones from the fight a day ago?”

Orreh waved at him. The Dwarf jogged over, grinning.

“Yes indeed! Fancy meeting you all again! Are you here to compete?”

“Watch. Inkarr might, but we are watching. Popcorn? Thank you for helping!”

Oor offered the popcorn around, good naturedly. Merrik chortled.

“Is that the popcorn stuff? No thanks. I was stuffing my face earlier and I’m actually feeling a bit sick. Peki nearly went insane for the popcorn—Garuda love it, apparently. Bird feed. Well met. You’re Oor, you’re…Tkrn, the [Guard], right? And you, Miss…?”

“Orreh. This one’s big sister. Where’s your Minotaur friend? The Garuda? You’re the [Strategists], aren’t you? The Titan’s students? I saw you at Daquin!”

Merrik shook his head, but not to deny it. Tkrn stared.

It was like being in the presence of a celebrity. And ‘celebrity’ was a new concept. The Players of Celum had been one such, but television had made Drassi into a second.

Tkrn hadn’t known them well, just seen them at the inn and been too shy to talk to them. But Merrik had been on television! The Dwarf seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention; other Gnolls were looking at him, pointing him out. They knew his name, despite never having met him.

That was fame.

“That feels like an age ago. Amazing people watched that and remembered—well, it was a lot of fun! You know, they’re even asking for those autographs?”

“Can I have one? It might be worth money!”

Merrick was only too pleased to oblige. Orreh went off to find an autograph piece, and Oor took over the rapidly-depleting bag of popcorn.

“Where are the other two? Um…Venaz and Peki? And aren’t there more of you?”

Tkrn tried to remember their names. Merrik pointed.

“Racing. If you’re talking about Feshi, Wil, and Yerra—they’re in Oteslia. We left because Venaz was grinding his horns against the wall. So was Peki. They’ll be along soon; it’s good news.”

“Your friend got better? I heard you went to the Plain’s Eye Tribe.”

Also strange that Oor could talk about Yerranola’s poisoning. It struck Tkrn almost as a bit insensitive, but Merrik just smiled.

“She’s better, yes. We were in talks when Wil told us the antidotes were having an effect. Myself, I’m just relaxing now. And looking forward to the races—see? There they are!”

He pointed. The Gnolls around him, listening in, laughed.

“Wait, the Minotaur is racing?”

“There is nothing Venaz thinks he can’t win at.”

Merrik pointed out the Minotaur standing among the tallest Gnolls and clearly jesting with them in good humor. He took a sprinter’s position like some of the others. Tkrn watched, seeing Peki flutter down.

“Is she running on foot?

“Ah, well, she’ll probably lose. Talons are worse than feet on the ground. I bet against both. But she is a [Martial Artist] of Pomle. Both of them wanted to give it a shot. Myself? I’m going to keep my short legs over here.”

“They have bets? Let me see if—”

Tkrn found himself holding the mostly-empty bag of popcorn. He and Merrik watched as the countdown began.

“Three, two, one…go!

They took off. Merrik roared, despite his bet against his friends.

Go, Venaz! Go, Peki! Show them how fast students can run! Pretend you’re late for a class project!

The Minotaur actually got up to the head of the line in the first moment; he’d shot up the instant the race began. But he was quickly passed by Peki and the leading rank. For all that, he kept pace with the Gnolls without dedicated Skills, and didn’t come in last at all.

But the front was dedicated to Peki, three more [Barbarians] of the Wild Wastes tribe, and, strangely, a Gnoll on all fours.

Tkrn knew children ran on all fours, but it was odd to see an adult do that! Yet the Gnoll bounded along, and he looked…wilder…

“Dead gods, Peki might actually win. Those [Barbarians] are fast!

“Of course they are! They have to move fast in battle!”

Orreh was back. So was Oor, who hadn’t managed to slip a bet in. Yet, as Peki and the three Gnolls on two legs vied to be first, the Gnoll using all four limbs began to speed up. And up and…

He shot past everyone by the end of the thousand foot dash, having a slower start, but no limit to his top speed, seemingly. The Gnolls cheered or groaned, and Merrik went off to collect his winnings; he’d bet his friends wouldn’t come in last, or win, but place well.

“What was that Gnoll? He looked like he never went through his changing years! He even looked different.”

Oor was as confused as Orreh. Tkrn had no idea; he was peering at the Gnoll as the winners jogged back, Venaz and Peki talking with the others.

It took them a while to get to them; the three students were being asked for autographs, Tkrn saw. Venaz brushed them all off, while Peki and Merrik signed willingly.

“Ah, the [Guard]. Well met. Merrik said the young woman was here. That was a good race.”

Venaz crushed Tkrn’s paw, and did the same to Orreh and Oor. Peki nodded at Tkrn and he couldn’t help but stare at the people he had seen on television.

For a second. But he had known Drassi and the Players—so he did a lot better than Oor and Orreh, who began to get almost shy. That actually helped a lot; the students were clearly happy to have someone to talk to who wouldn’t dredge up the past time and time again.

“Thank you again, Venaz, Peki. Er—do you know what the Gnoll on all fours was doing?”

Venaz nodded. Peki looked sour.

“I was going to win. A fast Gnoll joined.”

The Minotaur snorted.

“The [Barbarians] were saving a last-minute sprint Skill. They’d have had you, Peki.”

“I would have used a kick Skill to fly across the end. Would have won.”

“You’d have been disqualified. Anyways, that Gnoll had us all to rights. He’s a [Shapeshifter], apparently. Didn’t even have to fully change to beat us. I’m interested to see the final race, now.”

[Shapeshifter]? Orreh and Oor reacted with curiosity. Tkrn, pure surprise. There were rare classes popping up here from unique tribes. But then—he saw another race begin. And he nearly tossed the entire bag of popcorn.

Inkar?

She was racing! Peki took the bag of popcorn and stuck her entire head inside. Everyone else stared as a group of nearly forty Gnolls on horseback, one Human, and a Centaur all competed in one of the races.

“Obstacle racing! There’s Inkarr! Go, Inkarr! Show them the Longstalker’s Fang’s riding skills!”

Orreh jumped up and down. She and Oor howled to get their voices to her. Inkar raced with the other Gnolls, jostling but not interfering with each other—they were going through an obstacle course.

Weave through these poles or stretched nets and canvas! Go through mud, jump barriers of different heights—it was somewhat dangerous to the riders and horses, but the organizers trusted there wouldn’t be many people who’d be foolish.

Besides, there were [Shamans] and healing potions in force, as well as animal experts. With that in mind—Tkrn began to worry, because the group got through the overhanging nets, mud section, and jumps with only a single person dropping off their horse; they’d misjudged and gotten clotheslined by a net.

The rest raced on and Inkar was good! She was at the head of the pack, with the Centaur ironically struggling to keep up; he clearly thought that being part horse gave him an advantage.

Not so, when dedicated [Riders] with Skills made their weight almost nothing, or gave their horses’ hooves wings. It was even more pronounced on the longer races; the obstacle race was where Inkar had anything like a chance, because it was about agility and the dexterity of the person and horse.

But then came the tricky section. The first [Rider] had no chance. He was confidently racing past a large pole of wood written with a tribe’s markings or some carvings, and the outstretched arm and net was perpendicular to him; not a threat at all. Then—Tkrn saw the totem pole and net-arm turn and catch the rider.

He went off the horse fast. Another female Gnoll swore as she saw the obstacle course come to life! [Shamans] with their magic! She jumped out of her saddle and passed over the swinging arm. She landed on the ground and her horse went over to her.

“Now this is riding!”

Merrik roared with laughter. Suddenly, the riders were dodging moving obstacles that went only after them, not the horses! Inkar dodged, hanging low as a totem swung at her.

“She’s good! Look—she’s at the head of the group!”

Six riders burst out of the maze of nets as more Gnolls struggled to get back on their horses or chase down the animals after being unseated. Tkrn saw Inkar race ahead through another area and then, suddenly, cover her face with her arm.

“What’s wrong now?

“It must be a cloud or area spell. Looks like…disorientation.”

Venaz speculated. Indeed, the [Riders] were galloping in every direction. Inkar was coughing—searching—she urged her confused mare forwards and burst through the edge of the invisible cloud spell.

Unfortunately, she was behind one of the [Riders], who’d somehow kept her bearings. The Gnoll raced ahead towards the last obstacles and the finish line.

The last section was simply a pain in the rear. It was water, and you had to go through. One of the [Riders] just tried to go around and was ordered back through. Groaning, the six riders plunged into the water, some swimming with their horses and urging them forwards. There was a ‘path’, large enough for a single rider in some places, but you still had to ride through deep, deep water.

Inkar was behind three [Riders] now, and Tkrn was shouting encouragement. But the leader was far in front, pulling towards the shore. Inkar looked up as her mare gamely swam behind a very impressive stallion, some extraordinary bloodline, and realized she wasn’t going to make it. So, she hugged her mare and—

Pop! The lead rider stared as Inkar appeared in front of her. The mare stumbled—then cantered onto the solid ground. Inkar and her horse raced across the finish line to cheers and shouts.

Disqualified—wait. Where’s the [Shaman]?”

Gnolls argued as Inkar slowed, panting. They were pointing at her, but she hadn’t used a spell—not exactly.

“It’s her clothing! That’s Waisrabbit cloth! That should count! You haven’t disqualified artifacts and they’re from Honored Deskie!”

Orreh ran to join Inkar. The panting young woman was talking to the female Gnoll who looked exasperated and amused at the same time. Inkar dismounted to help dry her mare and greet the magnificent stallion who hadn’t even begun to breathe hard.

Tkrn watched Inkar ride over to them. She wasn’t even wet; well, her skin was, but her clothing was waterproof and the water had just slid off her.

“They disqualified me! It was fair! And fun! The other rider deserved to win!”

She laughed good-naturedly. Orreh was upset for her friend, but Inkar had enjoyed the race. And already another rule was being clarified thanks to her; no artifacts! Some Gnolls had to take off custom-made saddles or boots, and so on.

It was a lot of fun, and they stayed to watch the rest of the races. Inkar was disappointed to find Peki wearing the empty popcorn basket like a hat, and Oor was sent to take her mare back to the tribe as punishment for eating it all. Tkrn went to get more snacks with Venaz.

The Minotaur strode along fast, and Tkrn had no idea what to say. Venaz was tall, and even a lot of Gnolls, one of the taller species in the world, looked up at him.

Plus, he had Relc-like musculature. And Tkrn knew the Minotaur was good in a fight; he’d seen them at sea with everyone else on the orb!

The fact that he, a humble [Guard] was…the Minotaur spoke, abruptly.

“A fun race.”

“Er—yes. Yes. I am glad Inkar had fun. It looks dangerous, though. For some.”

Venaz glanced at him. They had come to the stalls set up where snacks were being distributed.

“There is danger in any worthwhile competition. What are you planning on buying? We can share it.”

“Er…more popcorn? Maybe some of those snacks? Roasted rat on a stick…no, I’ll pass, I think. I have a thing about rats. Um. Um…”

The Minotaur waited as Tkrn desperately looked around.

“Popcorn and—some of those minced pies! For everyone to share!”

“Indeed. I will procure some of the sweets, then.”

Venaz marched off. Tkrn felt like that had gone…poorly. What did you say to Venaz? He wasn’t as affable as Merrik. He went to line up and had his food in a matter of minutes. Venaz joined him, arms full of snacks.

“You must have spent a lot on that. I can share…”

Belatedly, Tkrn realized Venaz had probably doubled his expenditure at least; a lot of snacks were cheap, even the beef-flavored popcorn, but sweets were sugar, and thus a lot more expensive.

“I have enough money. It is to share. Let’s head back.”

The Minotaur grunted. Tkrn trailed after him lamely. Did Venaz not like him? No—it was just that Tkrn hadn’t much to say. If conversation was a give and take, Tkrn didn’t have much to say. Venaz had led with the race bit, and Tkrn had vouchsafed that it was dangerous. What a novel, really top-tier reply and a lead-in to so much meaningful conversation.

Venaz was much like the older Senior Guards who didn’t have anything to say unless it mattered, and told you to shut up if you chatted about something they found trivial. They weren’t mean, although you could take it as such. Tkrn felt it was more like they just didn’t like wasting words on meaningless conversation.

He walked in silence for a minute as Venaz looked for their group; they were finding some place to sit in the sun. He gestured, and Tkrn sniffed.

“What did you buy?”

Venaz sighed and Tkrn’s ears flattened. He could practically see the Minotaur’s thoughts. Engaging conversation topic. As if you can’t look over and see?

“A few treats. Tarts, pastries—some of it is new, like the popcorn.”

Tkrn glanced over. He saw a few familiar items as he hunted for something to say.

“I nearly participated in the murder of a Minotaur in our jail. You’re a Minotaur, right?”

…Was what he did not say, because Tkrn wasn’t stupid. He decided it was best to keep silent—until he smell-saw something and laughed out loud. Venaz glanced at him.

“Anything amusing?”

“Oh—no. It’s just that—they really are stealing everything from Liscor, aren’t they? Cookies and popcorn!”

He pointed. Venaz glanced down at a stuffed basket. Cookies, lined up, perhaps stolen from Silverfang baking ideas. He blinked.

“You know what these are? I’ve never seen them, but they looked like a bread.”

“They’re sort of like that. It’s a good sweet! I bought them all the time with my paycheck.”

“You don’t say. Where did they come from?”

“Liscor. At least, I’m sure they started there. Maybe they came from wherever the person who brought them was—but we’ve had them for months now! What flavors are they?”

“There was only one flavor. Were there supposed to be more?”

Venaz double-checked the basket of expensive cookies. Tkrn grinned.

“Where I was from you could buy a basket of all kinds of flavors. Some for fun. Those must be vanilla. You can get cinnamon, oatmeal, fly, blood, raisin…”

“Fly? Blood?”

“Oh—those are novelty, mainly. How much did you pay for them?”

“A gold for the basket.”

A gold? I could get you…thirty cookies at least, in Liscor!”

Venaz’s eyes slid sideways.

“Ah, you did say you were from Liscor. Where they were introduced.”

“Yes—and the popcorn. Although the beef flavor is new.”

“You don’t say. Didn’t the Silverfang tribe bring over baseball and soccer, too? I wanted to see a game, but we missed it.”

“We have all the gear. They might be playing later today.”

“I should like to see that.”

Tkrn realized the Minotaur was finally engaging him in actual conversation. He grinned, and saw Venaz looking attentive. Tkrn realized that this was the moment Krshia had wanted him to set up. He chose his words carefully.

“I could…ask the tribe to set up a game if they’re not planning on it already. You might like baseball. It’s much like swinging a sword—only different. But you can send a baseball flying.

“That’s quite interesting, thank you. Merrik, Peki—food. Listen to this. I paid for these snacks, but apparently they come from Tkrn’s home city. Liscor.”

“Ooh. Venaz, we’re going to have to buy all this again when Wil and the others get here. I hope Yerra’s got fresh taste buds because I’m going to treat her. Pass it around; they’re getting ready for the finals in the foot race sprints! What’s this about Liscor?”

Inkar, Orreh, and Oor glanced up and cheered at the sight of so many edibles. Tkrn saw the other students turn to him and felt a thrill—not least because it was his city!

“Liscor’s where a lot of this came from. I actually ate cookies on the first day they were brought out. An [Innkeeper]…made them…”

His face fell for a second, but no one else seemed to notice.

“Fantastic stuff. Sweet—chewy—I’d love them as rations. How much did it cost, Venaz?”

“One gold for the basket. Apparently I was overcharged; it’s cheaper in Liscor.”

Peki began to choke on her cookie. So did Oor. Merrik just grimaced.

“Throwing gold around, aren’t you?”

It was clear he and Venaz had more money than the Pomle [Martial Artist]. Venaz just shrugged.

“Pass the pie, will someone?”

He broke a small pie of hot meat in half and offered the other half to someone—Inkar took it and split it again for Tkrn. Venaz chewed happily on the meat and gravy mix.

“Ah. And the two sports games come from Liscor. Again, Liscor…Tkrn offered to show us the game.”

“Now there’s something. Would you mind actually doing that, Tkrn?”

Merrik’s eyes lit up. Tkrn’s nod wasn’t even necessary; Orreh and Oor fell over themselves agreeing for him. Then—the last footraces began.

First, one of the final ten thousand foot runs. By this time, the tournament had attracted even some famous Gnolls.

Steelfur Gnolls were lining up, although they were obviously heavy with the fur—but the best [Warriors] wanted to show off their tribe. Some other top-level [Warriors] and so on from other tribes were participating too.

Lehra Ruinstrider herself had apparently tried running a race—and lost. Tkrn wished he’d seen that. But now he saw something curious.

“Who’s that Gnoll?”

A strange Gnoll was walking into the race grounds followed by a horde of Gnolls. All with the same markings or smells. Orreh stood up to see and her eyes widened.

“That’s—I think that’s the Chieftain of the Woven Bladegrass tribe!”

It was indeed. Gnolls were turning and murmuring. Inkar, Tkrn, and the others stared. Not least because the Chieftain of the new combat tribe wasn’t what they expected.

She—and it was a she, in her late twenties!—was short, less than six feet tall, which was short indeed for a Gnoll! Scrawny, compared to some of the Gnolls present.

And yet, her tribe followed her. One of the [Shamans] hurried over.

“Chieftain Werri, will you be participating?”

She apparently said, ‘yes’ because the other Gnolls stirred. The Steelfur Tribe set themselves, clearly wanting to win—or beat the Chieftain of the Bladegrass tribe. So did a Gnoll Courier, looking more worried about beating the competition than the odds of doing so.

Everyone watched with interest. Did this Chieftain have hidden depths? Now a huge crowd was watching the races.

“She’s so small. I heard she was a great warrior!”

“She is. Looks are deceiving.”

Venaz was frowning at the Gnoll. A lot of the Woven Bladegrass tribe was standing behind their Chieftain, despite the race being about to begin. Some would probably compete, but there were probably two thousand just there with their Chieftain.

No one was about to tell them to get out of the way. They were a tough tribe. Also—Tkrn realized the Steelfur Gnolls were eying the Bladegrass tribe with a bit more than rivalry. Perhaps they felt the Bladegrass tribe was threatening them?

“That’s right. Smart Minotaur; she’s a lot better than what she looks like.”

Venaz frowned. Tkrn did too. That was a bit rude. He looked over and saw a paw grabbing three cookies and a handful of popcorn.

“Hey! We’re sharing the snacks! What are y—”

He stared. The small Gnoll was old—and definitely not Oor or Orreh. He was also surprising; Berrigral of the Wild Wastes tribe was casually plundering their snack pile. Venaz twisted in his seat.

Honored Berr!

“I smelled good food. I’ll tell you about Chieftain Werri. That’s a different name, by the way. They used to know her as Werina. And she used to be nothing.”

The Gnoll sat there. The [Announcer] was counting down. He looked at her.

“Did you train her?”

Venaz glanced at the small Gnoll. Then Berr. Tkrn realized the Minotaur was remembering the fight. Berr grinned at him, gap-toothed.

“Good thought, Minotaur. But I didn’t have to. She made herself without any of the old tribes helping her. They called her Werina. Her family were Paworkers. Ever heard of them?”

Tkrn stirred. Orreh and Oor looked blank. Then—the [Announcer] shouted.

Go!

Everyone’s head snapped back. And Tkrn looked for Chieftain Werri and didn’t see her. He did see a much taller, stronger-looking Gnoll standing where she was.

Her fur was brown like a forest and tinged with green in places. Almost like moss. The other Gnolls took off. But Werri, the Chieftain of the Woven Bladegrass tribe, didn’t run right away. She bellowed.

“Woven Bladegrass tribe! Run!

She began sprinting across the ten thousand foot run and all two thousand plus Gnolls went after her. Many were holding weapons, or even wearing armor. They surged in a single group behind her.

And passed the Steelfur Gnolls. The fastest runners in the heavy tribe, along with a quarter of the runners, saw the Bladegrass tribe surge past them.

“They have to be using Skills! She’s cheating!”

“No. She’s not. They’re just fast.”

Berr watched Werri running at the head of the group. True, there was variance in speed. But even the slowest Woven Bladegrass Gnoll was fast. The last-place Gnoll in the race wasn’t a Woven Bladegrass Gnoll.

—Of course, Werri and her tribe didn’t win. They placed high, some of them, but the Gnoll Courier outran them all.

That was predictable. Even so, Tkrn exhaled as the Gnolls crossed the finish line. That was a display from the Woven Bladegrass tribe. He turned to ask Berr more questions.

And realized the Gnoll had taken all the snacks and run away. Venaz went after him with Peki and Orreh.

“[Barbarians].”

Venaz came stomping back, empty-handed, ten minutes later. Merrik blinked.

“You let that old Gnoll get away, Venaz?”

“He was tossing the snacks at his tribe. We wouldn’t have gotten scraps even if I did grab him. And I have no desire to actually enrage a [Berserker].”

The Minotaur flopped down as Peki flew back, with a new bag of popcorn. He nodded over his shoulder.

“Besides. The Wild Wastes tribe might not have been able to afford cookies for a gold piece. If you could buy goodwill—let them steal your snacks.”

Tkrn looked at the Minotaur. It was so easy to forget how cunning Venaz could be. Also, it was a revelation to think that a tribe as old and known as the Wild Wastes tribe wouldn’t be able to pay for a few gold’s worth of snacks for an Honored Gnoll.

Oor saw the look Inkar was sharing too. He whispered loud enough for their Gnoll-hearing and theirs alone.

“Don’t mistake that. The Wild Wastes tribe isn’t rich in gold—but they have plenty of things to them.”

That made sense. Everyone nodded, and settled back as a second snack run was set up. The last race they were going to see was the thousand foot dash, the ten thousand one being scheduled for later in the day to give the competitors time to warm up.

There was a [Shapeshifter]. Venaz folded his arms.

“I’m keen to see what species he actually is. Maybe multiple? Wolf is my bet. I’ll bet you three cookies, Merrik, Peki.”

“Wolf’s too obvious. I bet it’s a fast cat-thing.”

“I won’t bet for cookies. Too expensive.”

Peki turned her beak up. The starting line had a [Barbarian], one of the Wild Wastes tribe’s, the Courier Gnoll—‘Furstep’, a rather generic name in Tkrn’s opinion—the [Shapeshifter], three [Messenger] or [Scout] types, and a Woven Bladegrass [Skirmisher].

The excitement was real. The bets, realer. Everyone watched as the [Announcer] began the countdown.

“Three, two, one, go!

The first hundred feet vanished in front of the charge of the competitors. They were running—the first seconds of shouting and cheering had Tkrn on his feet with the others. But then—

Thief! [Thief]! He’s stolen artifacts!

A voice from the crowd. Half the heads turned. And Tkrn saw a shape blur out of the crowd, followed by dozens upon dozens of Plain’s Eye Gnolls. They were chasing a young Gnoll with a scarf wrapped around his face, dark clothes—

Gnolls grabbed for him. The Gnoll slid past them, under the legs of a horse, and barreled onto the race track. The racers hadn’t heard, so caught up in the race. Tkrn saw the Gnoll being pursued by a vast mob of Gnolls. The [Thief] had a bundle he had shoved into a bag of holding. He ran, arms and legs pumping—

The Courier in the front was vying with the accelerating [Shapeshifter] for the finish line. They heard shouts, screams, and the crowd going wild as they accelerated for the final, three-hundred foot dash.

The [Thief] passed both of them. The Courier and [Shapeshifter] slowed as he ran past the finish line. He outdistanced nearly a hundred horses going after him—Tkrn’s jaw dropped.

“Get that [Thief]! It’s him—the Thief of Clouds! The disgrace to our people!

The winner of the thousand foot dash ran across the plains. The Thief of Clouds, one of the most infamous Gnolls that no one was proud of, ran into the distance and abruptly—vanished. The [Riders] spread out, calling for anti-invisibility or camouflage spells, but they never found them.

“I think that Gnoll actually ran faster than I could shoot an arrow. Mind you, there are faster Couriers, even among the Gnolls. I’m sure it wasn’t a sustained Skill. But that was something.”

Everyone was talking afterwards. Venaz was talking to the others who were telling Tkrn and Inkar about the Thief of Clouds.

“It’s said that one time, a cloud passed over a caravan escorting a relic-class item to Pallass. In the time the [Guards] were under shadow, the Thief of Clouds slipped in, stole the relic—and the cloud! When the Drakes looked around, both were gone! And later, the relic appeared on the black market.”

“Like the great thief in my children’s book. You know, the one who stole the Eye of Baleros? Thivian Stormless?”

“I know him! The Lightning Thief, yes? I read the same book as a child. But that is a story. That Gnoll gives us a bad name. Bad enough we’re called thieves by the Drake cities—he also steals from his own people! At the Meeting of Tribes!”

It just went to show that some Gnolls didn’t respect tribe or tradition. Even so, it was the talk of the hour. And Tkrn was secretly pleased to have been there to say he had been there.

What was more surprising was that Venaz remembered Tkrn’s promise. And he prevailed on Tkrn since the races had been suspended for an hour after the drama.

“So? How’s my posture? Wait, don’t tell me. Let me puzzle it out. I feel like I’d rotate my body as I swing. Like…this?”

Venaz swung the bat and Tkrn was impressed.

“Yes, it’s all in the hips. You rotate your body—that’s right.”

“And I’m aiming for distance?”

“If you get it past a certain point, it’s a ‘home run’. But it changes depending if we’re allowing Skills.”

“Excellent. I can see why it’s growing in popularity. The House of Minos would surely enjoy this game. Soccer…not as much. Too hard with hooves.”

He grunted as a nervous Gnoll tried a fastball. Venaz cracked it just to the left of the Gnoll’s face. At this point, Inkar suggested they use protective gear.

 

—-

 

Merrik, Peki, and Venaz ended up staying at the Silverfang’s camp. It was not a Gnoll tribe connection directly, but they were friends with Feshi Weatherfur, so Krshia and Chieftain Akrisa welcomed them in instantly.

Besides which, celebrity. But Tkrn was happy enough to let the [Strategists] play the new sports game and sign things and talk—he and Inkar had their own business in the combined tribal camps.

For instance? Cers, the little Gnoll cub who was around Mrsha’s age, was curious about Inkar. So Tkrn and Inkar ended up kicking around a stray soccer ball and watching all the young Gnoll children race after it.

“It’s so much fun!”

So saying, Cers leapt on a Gnoll girl and wrestled her for the ball. They happily fought, punching, biting—until his older half-sister, Satar, waded in.

“Cers! Don’t attack other children! You’re the Chieftain’s son!”

The young [Shaman] scolded him. He stuck out his tongue and hid behind Inkar.

“I’m having fun! Go away, Satar!”

“Now, now. Why don’t we all be civil here? Let’s kick around the ball—you can gain a class, you know.”

Inkar laughed because [Guardsman] Tkrn was actually able to quell the unruly mob. Children were children and a [Guard] had to deal with them. The Gnolls gathered up.

Really?

“Oh yes. I know a little Ekirra who’s a [Kicker]—he can boot his ball a hundred feet! Drakes take me if I lie.”

And he’d broken several window shutters, and several glass ones as a result. The children were very impressed, though, and begged Tkrn to show them. He did a few basic passes like he’d seen Joseph do, and then suggested a game.

Someone was watching Tkrn, though. Merrik had declined to do more than hit the ball and run around the bases—he felt, instinctively, that all these games were designed for people with longer legs than his. He had no strike zone, and while baseball was more reasonable, he just wasn’t into either game.

As Venaz scored another run and retired to the bench, panting, Merrik spoke thoughtfully.

“That’s two sports.”

“Say again?”

The Minotaur took a long drink of water. Merrik spoke.

“Two sports. Cookies, popcorn—I heard there are cakes, even ice cream from the City Gnolls who were in Liscor. Multiple foods. Also, isn’t that Drassi [Reporter] from Liscor?”

Venaz was toweling off his sweaty body and his horns. He stopped.

“Yes. That city’s at the forefront of something.”

“Sounds like a good connection. If we had time, I’d say we should check it out.”

“I have to. Even though we promised to return via Khelt—there’s business for me too. Not as happy.”

“Hm. And Chess Weekly comes out there. I heard a rumor that the Professor’s opponent might be there.”

“More reason to go. But what inspired all this? The dungeon?”

“I hear the word [Innkeeper] being tossed around a lot. Maybe…”

The [Strategist] students were smart, keen-eyed, and could put puzzle pieces together if they saw them laying around. What they forgot was that Gnolls were Gnolls. Krshia decided having their interest was a fine thing. So long as it was just that. She stepped away; there was little use for them beyond meeting Feshi, unfortunately.

This was the hour of Gnolls. The weeks and days of it. Months? Well. The Meeting of Tribes was beginning to turn to the summit of Chieftains.

 

—-

 

That night, the first battle lines began being drawn in a public banquet. Gnolls shared food, and so nearly eighty tribes sent members to a mass-gathering where you could eat and drink and talk communally.

Chieftain Akrisa, Krshia, Orelighn, and Eska—along with other Honored members and [Shamans] were all sitting with the Plain’s Eye tribe. One of their lead [Shamans] and a number of great warriors and leaders among them were meeting new tribes.

“It’s important to introduce ourselves to them.”

“Then they have even more power than at the last Meeting of Tribes.”

Krshia frowned, because them queuing with a number of tribes both acknowledged the Plain’s Eye superiority, and it spoke to leadership when all tribes were theoretically equal.

She supposed the Plain’s Eye tribe, like Az’muzarre, were simply too large to ignore. Well, the [Shaman] was very good at making the others feel welcome and liked, so Krshia simply resolved to have good food and reconnect with her roots.

Merrik, Peki, and Venaz were eating with the Silverfangs in good spirits, having played games and investigated Liscor’s things all day. When he’d heard that Pelt was making bicycles and that Tkrn had a sort-of-in with Kevin, the Dwarf had practically begged to get a discounted bike. Tkrn couldn’t promise much, but he’d told the Dwarf he’d talk to Krshia.

What was notable, though, was how the huge banquet was laid out. Not just one giant circle; there were plenty of Gnolls in the middle, around the central bonfire. But tribes did tend to sit together, if spread out so they weren’t one mass.

For instance, the Steelfur tribe, known traditionalists and famous, were sitting right with the Plain’s Eye tribe. A lot of Chieftains were sitting in the Plain’s Eye tribe’s company, but the Steelfur and their allies were all together, demonstrating clear alliance.

The Decles tribe, which had a new, small feud with the Silverfangs, for instance were sitting on the edge of that gathering. Allies of tradition.

It got interesting when the Woven Bladegrass tribe arrived. A thousand of them for this banquet—and they sat across from Steelfur. No love lost there. In fact, both Chieftains were also present.

Chieftain Werri of the Woven Bladegrass, and Chieftain Iraz of Steelfur. Iraz was older, more widely respected—but Werri was a rising star, and the non-conventional, smaller tribes went to her.

The two Chieftains greeted each other. It wasn’t a war; just a difference of opinions. Cordially, at first, but with an underlying edge. They spoke loudly, knowing all were listening.

Like the debates he’d accidentally engaged in. Tkrn listened as a hush fell.

“Chieftain Werri. It is good to see the Woven Bladegrass tribe. I hope this summit will help us agree on a way forwards for our people. Your wars with Drake cities have put other tribes at risk of retaliation.”

Chieftain Iraz did not mince words, although he did bow quite respectfully. Chieftain Werri copied him, more perfunctorily.

“Is that something for other tribes to dictate, Chieftain Iraz? Like the Plain’s Eye tribe?”

She glanced pointedly at the largest tribe here. Iraz raised his brows.

“Tradition lies with the Plain’s Eye tribe. They have the longest history compared to our short tribes, Chieftain Werri. Is it not well to respect their wisdom? New tribes such as yours bring change. The newness is not wrong, but it should be tempered with tradition, or do you not agree?”

She snorted. Many Gnolls stirred at this, but the [Shaman] of the Plain’s Eye tribe for this banquet silenced them with a gentle wave. Werri shook her head.

“Tradition. Is tradition avoiding conflict with the Drakes? I would say, rather, that instead of ‘new and old’, Steelfur and Plain’s Eye is old—and we follow an even more traditional path.”

Iraz looked confused, as did many Gnolls. Werri grinned and elaborated.

“We remember when Walled Cities fell. We remember war against the one foe that hunted us! Is that not traditional?

Murmurs. Many Gnolls were outraged by the insinuation—well, the older ones. The younger Gnolls wanted to applaud Werri. Iraz didn’t dignify her statement with a reply. He simply ended the conversation—politely—and Werri returned to her camp.

“What do you think?”

Inkar whispered to Tkrn. He shrugged.

“I’m a City Gnoll. I wouldn’t like to have the Woven Bladegrass angry at me.”

It was a non-answer, and Inkar nodded. Tkrn thought that was that—but he hadn’t counted on one thing.

Each tribe decided where to sit, and many were neutrally sitting between the two main ‘camps’ that had appeared. Other big tribes like Az’muzarre hadn’t even shown, same with Ekhtouch; they might be at other banquets. Silverfang had sent representatives to four more great gatherings.

However, she came to this one, by chance or design.

Lehra Ruinstrider and her team, the Stargazer’s Promise, stopped as countless Gnolls howled and cheered her. Celebrity? She was the hottest new Named Adventurer present. The success story of a Gnoll from a small tribe.

There were other Gnoll Named Adventurers. But none here, none so young—and her adventure was still going. Her battles with the Wall Lord Dragial were the things stories were made of.

An adventurer’s tale. So, instantly, two people among the many stood up and called out.

Lehra Ruinstrider! Come join us! The Steelfur tribe would welcome your team among ours!”

Chieftain Iraz called out. Lehra turned and grinned; she had met the old Chieftain whom she respected. But then, almost on top of him, was Werri’s voice.

Lehra! Sit with us and take your team!

The Named-rank Gnoll hesitated. She looked at her friends.

“Don’t look at us. This is your people.”

Elgrinna, the Dwarf, muttered. Emper, the [Monk] Stitchman, Suxhel, the Gazer [Wizard] all looked to their glorious leader.

Amused. Lehra squirmed at being put on the spot. She could lead them into battle, but she did not enjoy this.

“Someone’s going to be mad no matter what I do. Emper—Emper, what do I do?”

“Wisdom, Lehra…”

The Gnoll waited.

“Yes?”

Emper opened his eyes. The [Monk] looked at Lehra.

“Wisdom, Lehra, is learning from your mistakes.”

“You suck, Emper.”

Lehra Ruinstrider looked around, not even trying to hide her clear anxiety as she hopped from foot to foot. She looked around and then—made her choice.

Oh, hey! Is that Inkar and Tkrn? Fancy meeting you here! Mind if we join you?”

Tkrn choked on his food as Lehra Ruinstrider ran over. And suddenly—the Named Adventurer and her team were in their camp.

Krshia Silverfang’s spray of drink had gotten her sister and their tribe’s [Shaman]. Now, all eyes were on Silverfang.

It was a non-choice by the Named Adventurer, but significant enough! Both Steelfur and Bladegrass looked to their Chieftains to see if they should take offense.

Iraz just shrugged when his tribe expressed disappointment.

“Lehra may sit where she will. There are many banquets. Let her do so; it is unkind to war over her.”

On the other side, a disgruntled [Shaman] muttered.

“That young adventurer may choose where she sits, but she is not political.”

To that, Chieftain Werri leaned over and spoke to the [Shaman].

“You sound like a Drake. Political? Why does Lehra need to be political? We are Gnolls! Do we need to play games of politics?”

That started a fight. ‘You sound like a Drake’, or variations like ‘smell like a Drake’, always did.

“You’re Tkrn, right? And here are more people from the fight! Hi! Lehra. This is my team…say hi, guys.”

“We apologize for the disturbance. We can sit elsewhere if we are inconveniencing you.”

Emper bowed. Lehra hastened to agree, but who was going to send her away? The Silverfangs fell over each other to give them a position of honor.

And somehow, Tkrn was in that group, with a wide-eyed Cers, Satar—Krshia and Akrisa excused themselves to come back with all the others.

What a great night! What a wonderful little event! Lehra, their tribe. The Steelfur and Bladegrass tribes and all the big ones were content to let the Silverfangs enjoy the chance meeting. Lehra barely got to really talk, being bombarded with so many requests from other Gnolls who’d come to see her transform, or talk about finding the Blade of Mershi and so on.

Lehra obligingly demonstrated, grinning as people cried out to see her wearing the armor from the City of Stars, a Relic-class artifact. Her team put up with it well, ribbing their captain, eating, being good guests…

In short, it was a nothing event which was a something event for those involved. Chieftain Iraz put it out of his mind, turning his attention to the Demas Metal Chieftain, whom he’d invited because his tribe had such a promising new metal.

“Candidly, Chieftain. What is it? A known alloy?”

“I believe it to be a new one. Much is said about adamantium—Salazsar has dug up a vein. And the great Dwarf [Smith], Pelt the Hammer, has forged it and offered some to Maughin of Pallass.”

The younger Gnoll sat there, eating and drinking with great aplomb with the seasoned Steelfur warriors and some of his own around him. Iraz nodded at all that; he’d wanted adamantium himself if it could be found. The greatest of all metals—well, one of them. Certainly for armor.

The Demas Metal Chieftain went on.

“We cannot match that. But then—is that so wrong? Few metals can! I say to you, Chieftain Iraz, my tribe’s metal is not Naq-Alrama steel. It is not adamantium. It is not capable of rivaling Dragon’s scales.”

The listeners blinked at this statement. The Gnoll lifted a furry finger and produced a blade.

“However. It is greater than mithril. Think of that. Greater than mithril, and I believe we can produce far more of it than adamantium because it is not these rare metals. Orichalcum is one of the components in Demas Metal, Chieftain Iraz. I present you with this blade, that you may test it yourself.”

Greatly impressed, Iraz accepted the blade. He turned his attention to that tantalizing point—a more plentiful metal that could arm an entire tribe, or a number of warriors rather than a single helmet or shield or blade.

The Demas Metal tribe was on the rise. The Woven Bladegrass tribe, likewise, was entertaining Ekhtouch Gnolls who were somewhat put off by how casually Werri treated the offer of children.

“We are a tribe of now, honored guests. Children are an excellent thing. But we do not plan in the long term. Yet—if our tribes can work and fight together, why not sleep together? Let us talk.”

Both Chieftains conducted great business that night, and let Lehra be young. And they failed to realize something.

Because the next day…Lehra Ruinstrider paid a visit to the Silverfang camp, politely sending regrets to Iraz and Werri and two dozen other Chieftains. The two great Chieftains were confused. This wasn’t just choosing a neutral party.

They had failed to understand one thing about Lehra, which both Chieftains and their tribes lacked—or failed to present. It was the connection of people like Lehra, Tkrn, as unlikely as that seemed. Of Merrik, Venaz, Peki, Inkar—something they all had in common.

 

—-

 

“That’s exactly it! Yes, thank you. I nearly cried after my first month abroad. All because I didn’t have these! Tada!”

Lehra pulled out a small package of…Tkrn sniffed it as Venaz and Emper traded talk on Chandrar.

“What is it?”

“Meat biscuits! It’s the Ruinstrider Tribe specialty!”

Lehra smiled as her entire team groaned. None of them liked the hard-baked biscuit, which the Ruinstrider made out of super dehydrated dried meat and bread.

“It’s um…hard…”

Inkar was trying to chew it. Lehra nodded.

“Everyone I know hates it. But it’s food from home. I had to have some. Because—you know?”

She turned to Merrik. The Dwarf sighed.

“Dead gods, yes.”

He’d shared around his food from home. Deríthal-Vel’s snack—or at least, what Merrick had claimed was a childhood snack he missed—was a hollowed-out mushroom, bright yellow with white spots. Edible, which you packed with something for long-term storage.

“It grows in your pockets.”

Peki shook her head, but it was actually a lot tastier than Lehra’s meat-biscuits. And the point was—

It was something that the two Gnoll Chieftains of their tribes hadn’t realized. And this was the connection between the students of Baleros, Tkrn, now, Inkar for certain, and Lehra’s team and the Stargnoll herself.

It was the bond of travellers. Those who had gone far from home—who had been to other countries, to other nations, and come back. Who were travelling still, in many cases.

How to explain it? It was easier to say that it was a connection people who had left their homes could talk about—and could not talk about to people who had never left.

Even if the locations weren’t the same, the experience was.

“You get to craving it, you see. All the foods are great wherever I go—mostly great. But you miss that one thing from home.”

Everyone nodded. Venaz sighed.

“To go to the House of Minos and have proper seafood one time…if we could have stopped there. Have you ever been, Adventurer Ruinstrider?”

“Lehra. No, I haven’t. I haven’t even been to Baleros, but we’ve been all over Izril! Maybe we should, to get away from Dragial and his cronies…”

“If you do, stop at the House of Minos, our King would welcome you. She admires strength of arms.”

Lehra had not left her home continent. But she had left her tribe. She had visited Drake cities—and Tkrn had left Liscor and was ironically travelling while visiting the Silverfangs.

It was so pleasant, talking about Humans, too. Because Lehra didn’t have one in her team, but she had three different species not including herself. Of course she liked Inkar and had stuck up for her.

“So Liscor’s got Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls? That’s great! Most cities are just…Drakes. All Drakes, every day Drakes. Not nearly as many Gnolls.”

“Four species, actually. There are Antinium too.”

“And you don’t feel in danger at all times?”

Venaz frowned. Tkrn shrugged as all eyes turned to him. Even Suxhel, the Gazer, looked mildly alarmed at the idea.

“They are…you get used to them. And of late, they’ve really started to change. They have names, they’re nice…”

“Nice? I have to see that.”

“Add it to your list! Along with Deríthal-Vel! It’s a pleasure to talk to a fellow normal-sized person, at last.”

Merrik and Elgrinna slapped each other on the shoulders and laughed. Similarly, Peki and Emper were engrossed in reminiscing about Pomle, which Emper had visited and his group of [Monks] had ties to.

Travellers became friends when they met, sometimes, because they could share that one thing in common. Tkrn realized Lehra was even around his age. A bit older, but she was a person, not a story. She was a glutton, she didn’t like the pressure of social events, and she really, really wanted to visit the north.

“We have a door straight to Invrisil, you know.”

“That’s it! We’re going to Liscor!”

The Stargnoll struck a pose. And Krshia got her wish. Because Lehra Ruinstrider had made a connection to the people like her.

 

—-

 

Someone else had cause to think on Lehra Ruinstrider at length the same day. If not the same place.

It was an unusual meeting. He had only agreed after several requests—or rather, the petitioner had finally convinced Alrric to talk to Ilvriss.

“Frankly, Wall Lord, I wouldn’t bother you normally. It’s the kind of petitioning for funds that I’d never invest our company’s time in. However…it dovetails with your request for artifacts and notable individuals. Somehow, they found out you were asking about Relic-class weapons or gear.”

Ilvriss was never a Drake to pass up investigating people who were investigating him. Besides which, he felt it germane to give the group of Drakes who knew about Az’kerash time to process…everything.

However, he did take the time to ask both Shriekblade and his uncle Nerul for information about the representative of a ‘Wall Lord Dragial’.

“To my knowledge, he is a former Wall Lord, isn’t that so, Nerul? A rare case of expulsion?”

“Ah, well, he keeps the title. Fissival isn’t so, mm, divorced from him as to strip him of all his possessions. They have essentially given the care of his estates to his family, removing him as the defacto head, but he has a number of supporters and I wouldn’t be surprised if his family still listens to him and funds him. He’s getting funding from somewhere.

Ilvriss nodded. It was one of the many scandals that engulfed Drakes in their cities. Wall Lord Dragial…yes, he recalled the incident. Attacking Gnoll tribes, disrupting entire cities chasing after…

“Named Adventurer Lehra Ruinstrider. The Stargnoll, Captain of Stargazer’s Promise. Bearer of the Relic-class artifact, the Blade of Mershi. And you can tell me, Shr—Adventurer Tessa?”

He turned to the scarred Drake currently poking her arm with a dagger. It didn’t go through her scales, but she was carving a faint outline with the tip without actually puncturing scale. She looked up.

“Never met her.”

“Ah.”

She went back to poking. Nerul was feeling at his neck spines. He opened a bottle of wine and poured everyone a drink. Ilvriss waved his cup away; Shriekblade did not. He’d had breakfast twenty minutes ago.

“Yes, Fissival had to exile him. The look of it—a Wall Lord gone mad? From what I know, he was always obsessed with Mershi. The problem is, he was wealthy, and powerful as an individual as well. A proper spellcaster.”

“How good?”

Ilvriss was interested. The City of Magic, Fissival, had an academy, their Scholarium, which rivaled Wistram at times. Graduates like Grimalkin were examples of how the best Drakes could turn out. Nerul frowned.

“I don’t know numbers. But he’s a master of Golem Artificing, summoning, and I believe he is ranked above a veteran [Battlemage]. He has to be if Lehra Ruinstrider and her team haven’t ended him. Their running battles are the stuff of stories. You know, a plucky young Gnoll who finds a Relic-class artifact of a dead Walled City and the evil Wall Lord chasing her? Well, that’s one telling. The other one that a lot of people—Drakes in the larger cities—like to say is that Lehra is a thief who causes trouble and Dragial hired her, whereupon she stole the object she was hired to retrieve.”

“The truth is…?”

“She probably did take it. The Ruinstrider tribe was hired by Dragial to search ruins for clues to the dead Walled City. No one knows where Mershi vanished.”

“Really?”

Nerul sighed.

“Go read a history book, nephew. I’m only telling you what I could get from a quick search—and only because Mister Superior is an amateur historian. He gave me the details over breakfast. I’ll let you dig up more or meet this representative of Dragial’s—I’m not gifted with [Speed Reading].”

Neither was Ilvriss, but he thanked Nerul anyways. He was about to head off when Shriekblade spoke up.

“I know one thing about Lehra.”

“Yes, Adventurer Tessa?”

The female Drake looked up at Ilvriss.

“Shriekblade. I told you, that’s who I am.”

“Shriekblade, then. What would you like to say?”

The Drake lowered her knife. She gave him a long stare.

“Lehra has a Relic-class artifact. That’s why she’s Named-rank. She’s not like us. Not yet. She’s a rookie.”

Ilvriss waited, but Shriekblade was done. He thought about that and nodded slowly to himself. So, a single artifact had made a Named-rank. No wonder this Wall Lord wanted it.

 

—-

 

The meeting with Dragial’s representative was short. Ilvriss cut it short because the Drake representing the Wall Lord was disappointing.

Ilvriss didn’t know what he’d expected. But the Drake was transparent as she spoke, shining with admiration for Dragial.

“Wall Lord Dragial will reward any generous contributions, Wall Lord Ilvriss. He intends to resurrect the legacy of the Walled Cities, and but for one thief, he would be leading Fissival into a new age. Once he recovers the blade from the fraudulent Named-rank—which Fissival’s Adventurer’s Guild and a number of Guilds have not acknowledged by the way—he will be poised to reward his allies.”

“I assume a monetary donation would be greatly appreciated, Miss Cenera?”

The Drake beamed at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord was already sighing inside. He’d seen people like this all the time—they came to people like him for funding for the next big project.

“A generous contribution is of course welcome, Wall Lord! But standing forces, artifacts—Wall Lord Dragial is not a single-minded Drake.”

Desperate was what he was. Ilvriss nodded.

“As it stands, Miss Cenera, I believe Dragial’s quest is quite…intriguing. I shall of course send what I can if circumstances allow.”

Her face fell. She knew a refusal when she heard it. But she went on, in the best spirit of entreaty.

“Could I persuade you to make a small contribution, Wall Lord Ilvriss? You know what it is like to be a Wall Lord from your city, surely. Something trivial for you…”

She pleaded, very forthright. A younger Ilvriss might have caved and given something—but the older Ilvriss knew that if you gave something once, you gave it again and again. He politely showed her the door.

Even so, the Drake insisted on handing him a personal letter from Dragial, which he had apparently penned upon learning Ilvriss’ ‘interest’. The Wall Lord thought it was a stock letter at first, but then he realized it was personally written.

He retired to the Gemscale tower while he read it, walking up stair after stair. Interesting.

Dragial was insane. No—just mad for power, which was the same thing. He ranted and raved about the ‘stolen relic’ he had properly paid for, not quite beseeching Ilvriss. He must have an ego to expect Ilvriss to just fork over a hundred thousand gold pieces. However, part of the letter caught Ilvriss’ attention.

I know you have been seeking relics. The legacy of our Ancestors and Drakes before us is still there! The Blade of Mershi is one weapon in an armory of legends. When I find it, I will personally gift the Blade to my greatest allies; far greater weapons await. Take up my cause, Wall Lord Ilvriss…

“Oh, have more people come begging for money? Please tell me you’re not wasting more of your fortune, Ilvriss.”

He looked up. Navine Gemscale was heading down from the upper floors and he’d just entered his mansion. He and his sister exchanged looks.

“Nothing of the sort, Navine. I forgot how many such individuals there are. I wasted the last thirty minutes on a Wall Lord Dragial. You know him?”

She snorted as she descended, tail twitching with irritation.

“Know him? I’ve met him. Remember, I went to Fissival for two years to learn a bit of magic?”

Ilvriss had forgotten. Navine hadn’t really graduated as a full [Mage]; she’d realized her talent wasn’t that strong, so she got one of the courses for Walled Drakes and such.

“He was there?”

She waved a claw, grimacing.

“This was way back, before Lehra Ruinstrider became famous. He was already a Spell Lord or whatever the name was for him—like one of the professors. And even then, he was obsessed with Mershi. He taught a class on dead Walled Cities and he had all kinds of students who were fanatic loyalists.”

“Typical of such people. He approached me for help seizing the Blade of Mershi.”

“Good luck with that. It belongs to Lehra Ruinstrider. You’re not going to cause an incident with Gnolls, are you? Even Fissival dumped him for that. He tried to hold her entire tribe hostage.”

She eyed her sibling. Navine Gemscale would have thought Ilvriss could do any number of stupid things—but neither one would just give money to a loon like Dragial.

But the last few days had shaken her. Not only had he been seen at a brothel, he’d apparently been so taken he’d personally requested the company of one of their best escorts. Navine had seen her in Ilvriss’ company.

That was scandalous enough, but she could understand him being lonely or despondent and turning to a stupid solution. But the Potion of Regeneration?

Her mother and father had been stunned. Navine as well, not least because the sum was the talk of Salazsar. That much gold for a damaged potion? Hostile negotiations? Ilvriss had never, ever done anything like that.

Moreover, his net worth had plummeted as a result. He was still insanely rich, but his personal fortunes—not the Gemscale family’s as a whole—were now, er, insanely rich. But the ranking of Walled Drake’s wealth meant that Navine had passed him in monetary value for the first time since they were young.

She had wanted that to be a triumph of her superior business model and way of running her company. Not this. She was worried about Ilvriss.

But how did you say it? The Wall Lord nodded to Navine.

“Heading to Oteslia?”

“Yes…Mother’s taking her time. It’s going to be a toll on her, but we’re leaving in two hours.”

“I said my goodbyes, but perhaps I’ll say one more.”

“Please don’t. She’s already taking too long.”

Navine sighed. They should have been at Oteslia right when Reinhart arrived. But her mother would need to be escorted via floating bed; her health was fragile.

She chewed on her lip as her tail lashed the carpet. Navine closed her eyes.

“Ilvriss. Just what…was the potion for? I know you have secrets, but—”

The Drake looked around. Ilvriss had already left, heading for the library. She scowled. Well, let him waste his gold. The Humans were more important for now.

 

—-

 

Navine’s awkwardness was plain. Probably over Xesci. Indeed, Brilm, Tasilt—Zail had had a number of words when he’d found out. But no one ‘knew’ anything.

They suspected, of course. And let them. Ilvriss didn’t care about his reputation…much. The point was that the worst qualities of Drakes would help Xesci’s cover.

They might even know she was a [Courtesan of Change]. Ilvriss doubted it; Brilm and Tasilt probably didn’t think much of her class aside from its utility in the bedroom. It was that. That was a weakness of his people. Their disdain for things that were not proper or good, or Drakeish.

Well, Ilvriss had learned one lesson there. And if he had learned that, he could at least do his due diligence when it came to Mershi.

The Wall Lord shook his head as he perused Gemscale’s vast family library. Ancient books, tomes—he coughed, despite the regular dusting that took place here.

Mining records. Some of it was useless. However—he murmured to himself.

“One weapon, even a weapon worthy of a Named-rank Adventurer, is not worth the effort that has been spent on it already by Fissival or Dragial. Still…”

Dragial had written to him, explaining why he was so obsessed. The Drake was mad, but it was still a dream he was chasing.

The Blade of Mershi is not capable of changing our species’ place in the world. But imagine an armory of Relic-class weapons, Ilvriss. Just imagine it!

Ilvriss snorted. He spoke to Dragial as he hunted for a book he thought he knew was here. He shook his head.

“Wall Lord Dragial. You’re chasing stories. If I thought there was even a…a 10% chance, I would invest into this idea. But short of miracles—plural—I don’t see…”

His voice trailed off. He pulled out a book entitled The Lost Cities of Izril, and opened it. For a moment, he was silent.

Dragial was doing this the wrong way. He thought the Blade of Mershi would unlock the key to finding the Walled City. Ilvriss wondered if he knew something—but it occurred to him it wasn’t an entirely lost cause.

A month ago, he’d have arranged to have the owner of the Blade of Mershi tossed into The Wandering Inn and a [Spy] with transcription Skills write down everything that happened. If—

The Potion had failed. But he had done what he could. All that lost gold…Ilvriss shook his head.

If there was a 1% chance it would have worked, he would have done it again.

 

—-

 

He took the book to a sitting room to read. He had read this once, as a child. A full account of all the Walled Cities remembered. There had been other books of Walled Cities, with their legacies, full records—

But even the oldest enchantments faded. Libraries were burned by accident. Ten thousand years destroyed first-hand documentation. Twenty thousand? Forty?

This book was old. And even so, it was compiled of stories and partial records. The [Historian] had done their best.

Mershi had a section of course, but many Walled Cities did. Ilvriss remembered some.

“Grunvel—the City of Pacts! The only Walled City built out of friendship with the Dwarves! A great, lost city in the north…”

A young Ilvriss had dreamed of finding a trace of it. Hadn’t they all? But the truth was that most Walled Cities’ locations were known. They were just no longer there.

Every stone, every relic, had been taken, sold, dispersed to the winds. All that each city had been was gone. Perhaps even now, someone held a Relic-class weapon that was their family heirloom and did not know where first it had come from.

Dragial was the young Ilvriss who’d never grown up. Who’d clung to that dream until it twisted. What about Mershi made him convinced there was anything left to find? Ilvriss muttered to himself.

“What was the City of Stars?”

Aha! He found the section at last and began to read.

Mershi was a city of [Astronomers]. If Salazsar was the tallest Walled City to currently exist save perhaps for Oteslia’s giant tree, well, Mershi had been taller.

Floating buildings, a central spire that reached so high heavenwards it could be seen like the High Passes wherever you went…the [Historian] had a way with words. Mershi had been grand and powerful, even among the Walled Cities. Yet the entry was sparser than Grunvel’s or many of the other’s.

Because—Ilvriss blinked. It was said that Mershi had even had Ancestors—Dragons—who helped govern and fight for it.

Fairy tales. And like fairy tales, Mershi’s end was the stuff of legend.

It had fallen before Humans had colonized the north. That was why only myth was accessible to the [Historian]. Mershi had been one of the first Walled Cities to fall. The spire fell. The city turned to ruin.

In hubris, all the tales I have been able to verify recollect some great incident of Mershi’s downfall. Hubris, arrogance—the classic faults of our kind. What this event was I do not know; the legends hint that it is too terrible to recount, which suggests ignorance on the [Storytellers] and [Historians] before me. What I can tell you is that Mershi disappeared overnight. Every person within was said to be lost, and the city vanished, because the skies themselves turned dark and the entire region was lost for a century’s time, as if some great spell had swallowed everything. When it finally was lifted—no one could find a trace of the City of Stars.

Ilvriss set down the book. Now there was a story that explained it all. [Treasure Hunters] had probably read this, like Dragial, and concluded that Mershi might be there. Even so—the city had to be dead.

But the Blade of Mershi had been found in this age after so long. Ah, Ilvriss felt the young Drake inside him begin to get excited. Dragial thought it was a key to finding the City of Stars!

…He caught himself, shaking his head. No, he had no time to waste on this. If Az’kerash had not been…Ilvriss might have indulged himself in this if Periss was alive, Erin was well, and the world not threatened.

But he was too busy. He put the book back in its place and let legends lie. He had work to do.

 

—-

 

Alrric the [Administrator] of the Gemscale company was having his lunch break. He was walking back home, rather than eat in the tower.

Alrric Kerrfa, brown-furred, a classic example of a working Gnoll who’d risen to the top from being a humble [Miner], was one of the highest-placed Gnolls in Salazsar. He had a wife and child, Ximenes and Sidinel.

He was a model citizen, in short. Unique in his competent boringness; even Ilvriss thought of Alrric as a Gnoll who lived for his family and took his job seriously.

That was how Alrric liked it. The Gnoll had packed up a gift for Sidinel. A little bit of adamantium, still embedded in the rock. Not too much value, but he knew she’d be fascinated. It wasn’t theft; he’d made a note in the log about bringing it back after a week. It wasn’t as if it could be processed in Salazsar’s forges.

Business was good. Ilvriss was strange, but Alrric had every intention of letting the Wall Lord do as he pleased. No news was good news…Wanderer hadn’t reported in, but the road was long. Alrric was humming to himself as he wondered what Ximenes had made for lunch. He really hoped it wasn’t any of the fish she’d bought ‘specialty’ from the Zeres shipment.

He didn’t like fish that much. And he had to take a breath-neutralizer. He sighed. If it was fish—

His head moved sideways for a moment. The foot-traffic got heavier the further you went down the walkways between towers. But he was still rather spread out.

“Hm. Fish, fish…”

The Gnoll muttered to himself. His fur began to stand up. He looked ahead towards one of the large staircases and saw two figures standing right along the edges of the doorway. And…three Drakes, casually coming up on his rear.

Which was no problem. Except that if they were coming out of the administration block, they wouldn’t be heading down this far. It was usually Gnolls who took this route to one of their districts. Of course, you wouldn’t know that if—

Alrric began adjusting his suit. He tried humming. But his heart was suddenly pounding.

Was it today? Oh no, no—there was a single Gnoll standing in the doorway. Was this it? His stomach lurched. He looked up to check the sun—

And swung around and belted the first Drake in the face as the attacker lunged. The Drake wasn’t expecting that. None of the five ambushers were.

Nor—for how Alrric reacted. The Gnoll didn’t stop at a punch. He rammed forwards—and threw the Drake off the bridge, over the guardrail.

The Drake went screaming down. The others froze. They saw the [Administrator] reach down to his belt and flick a knife into the second Drake’s chest. The Gnoll and Drake who’d rushed out of their spot saw the second Drake die, clawing at his chest.

“Poison?”

The third, female Drake backed up. The [Administrator] had pulled out a wand. She raised her claws—

The retort of the spell from the specialty-crafted wand that Spellcaster had made for him vaporized the Drake’s chest.

“Stop! St—”

The two other attackers froze. Alrric turned. The wand fired twice, catching the last, the Gnoll, running. Alrric lowered his wand and looked around, panting.

“It’s happening. I have to—”

He ran. The encounter had been so fast, if anyone had seen the fight it had been over in a moment. He charged down the stairwell, ripping a speaking stone from his pocket.

Coinpurse! Coinpurse—I’ve been attacked! This might be it!”

An alarm. He pushed through the crowd, stowing the speaking stone. None of the others would respond.

Shadows, Spellcaster—Wanderer was gone. They’d take care of their ends. Alrric had to get to Ximenes and Sidinel.

He had feared this day was coming for decades. The last time—well, it wouldn’t go like that again. But how had they found out?

The Tribes had sent assassins after him. Alrric checked his fur as he pushed through the crowds, racing back home. Not a trace of white.

But how…? In his panic, he burst into the family home as Ximenes was arranging dishes.

“Dear, what’s wrong? You look like—”

“They’re here. I was just attacked! Where’s Sidinel? It’s time to go!”

His wife dropped the dishes. She whirled—

Sidinel!

The Gnoll appeared, her eyes wide with fright. All of them knew what to do.

“Grab all the gold, the bag—we’re meeting Shadows and Spellcaster and their group and going.”

“Are they hurt? Are they alive?”

“I signaled them. They’ll signal back if—”

Tic, tic. Both Gnolls heard the sound from a speaking stone embedded in the wall. Then two subtle rings.

Safe and alive. Alrric was panting. Ximenes turned.

“How did they find…?”

“I don’t know how they figured it out. Maybe—I had a bit of white fur during that mine inspection. Maybe that was it? Some Plains Gnoll—we have to go.

All three Gnolls were grabbing the readied items. They would be out the door in a minute—when the speaking stone at Alrric’s hip blared to life.

Coinpurse. Coinpurse! Stop! This is Shadows.

He yanked the stone off his belt.

“Keep quiet and meet us at the gathering spot! You know what to do!”

“Coinpurse, stop! I think this is a mistake. You said you were attacked? I just got word that someone organized a hit on you! Not us. It’s the companies. Stop!”

Alrric stopped. His paranoia had blinded him to other possibilities—instinctual fear of what he thought had to be happening had taken over. He began to breathe.

“…What? What? I don’t have enemies, Shadow! There hasn’t been…”

The Emera Corporation. The hostile negotiations! Alrric lowered the stone. Sidinel, Ximenes—his family looked at him and hesitated. Alrric growled into the stone.

“Shadows, Spellcaster—hold on. This might be a false alarm.”

 

—-

 

Ilvriss got word of six attacks on [Miners] off-duty, higher-ups in the Gemscale corporation, and someone fired a [Fireball] spell into one of the mine’s supports!

He strode into his office, having run down from his family mansion to find Alrric, panting, leaning over the desk.

“Alrric! Are you alright?”

He’d gone to Alrric first; half of his corporate staff had been attacked!

Not killed. Rather, they’d been beaten, kicked about, and left for [Healers] to find. Broken bones were the worst of it; this was a message.

“I’m fine. I was attacked. My attackers are…dead.”

Ilvriss stopped.

“Dead?”

All of his employees had been jumped. A few had gotten out, running for help, or winning the fights, but Alrric had killed all five of his attackers. One had been tossed off the bridge.

“I thought I was dead. I—have an emergency wand. From the mining days. And my rings.”

Of course. Ilvriss blinked. Alrric was panting like he’d run around Salazsar several times.

“I’m fine. No, I’m damn well not! This is the Emera Company, after the hostile negotiations, Ilvriss!”

He slammed his paws on the desk. The Gnoll looked up, furious, at Ilvriss.

“I thought they were after me and my family! I had to make sure they were safe before I came up here! They’ve hired thugs and their own people to attack us! It’s a war and you dragged us into it for that damned potion!”

All true. This was a corporate war. And in Salazsar? They got ugly.

Deaths weren’t as common—but sabotage, attacks like this? Ilvriss had seen it before. But the Gemscale family hadn’t dealt in this kind of thing since his father…he felt an unpleasant feeling in his stomach. He’d feared it was Az’kerash at first.

“Alrric, I cannot apologize enough. If I had any idea—I am not going to stand for this. Hire as many [Mercenaries] as it takes. Contact the Watch! I want all of our people safe.”

“For how long?”

Alrric was angry. He was snapping back at Ilvriss. He tried to calm himself.

Stop, stop! You need this job and he’s your employer, even if you have cause to be mad! He’d worked too hard to let himself throw it away—especially because they hadn’t come to kill the white Gnolls in Salazsar today.

The Gnoll was worried Ilvriss would ask about the deaths. It was an extreme reaction, even if Alrric was now claiming justifiable self-defense. He waited, sweating, and hoping the dye wouldn’t run. But the Wall Lord didn’t take offense to his comments. His eyes narrowed and he walked to the window.

“Not for long, Alrric. I promise you—this will not be a protracted war. Is the office secure?”

“I checked. I’ll get some more of the guard in—”

“Captain Shieldscale, come in.”

Ilvriss spoke into his own personal speaking stone. There was a muffled response. Alrric saw Ilvriss turn.

“I need two of the Rubirel Guard to come to my position in the administrative tower to guard Administrator Alrric now. Send two more to his home at…”

He turned to Alrric. The Gnoll repeated the address, blinking. Ilvriss nodded.

“…And the last two on me. Raise the Erchirite Spears and all of Gemscale’s guard—keep the rest in the mansion with my family. Tell my sister—”

He was striding for the doors. Alrric and Ilvriss both doubted the Emera corporation would go after Ilvriss or the Drakes themselves; that was a step too far in corporate warfare in the eyes of the Walled Families. When the corporations fought, everyone but the top suffered.

The response for Gemscale might be to lodge a complaint or call for a session among the other Wall Lords and Ladies of Salazsar. Or just retaliate in kind. Alrric, still panting with the adrenaline in his body, expected either.

And he had forgotten how much Ilvriss had changed.

 

—-

 

It was not Rellmel’s idea. He thought it was actually a bad idea given that Gemscale had more wealth and success than Emera. But Grisa had insisted and his sister had implemented the attacks.

Still, there would be a bit of schadenfreude—a very Drake idea, even if they didn’t have the same word for it—to see Ilvriss’ reaction. Everyone who’d heard of the corporate war was interested in seeing what would happen next.

Wall Lord Ilvriss emerged from the Gemscale corporation’s tower with two of the Rubirel Guard holding position at the doors. Two more and his Captain Shieldscale flanked him. Sensible precautions, if a bit overdramatic. A few [Gossips] saw the Wall Lord’s face; oh, he was angry. Was he going to call for a censure of Emera’s family? Was he going to…?

Adventurer Shriekblade, where are you?

The Wall Lord barked. A shadow stepped out of the doorway.

“Here.”

The watching Drakes shuddered. The Named Adventurer was looking…excited. Ilvriss looked at her, Captain Shieldscale, who’d unnecessarily drawn her sword.

Then—he drew his. The enchanted blade glowed in the air as Ilvriss donned the armor around his clothing that Shieldscale handed him. Even the Rubirel Guard stared. But Ilvriss wasn’t done.

“Adventurer Shriekblade, your orders are to follow me. If someone attacks me, cut them down. Kill no one until they make the first move. But you have full license to kill in defense of me or any Drake in my employ. Is that understood?”

“Yes.”

She grinned and drew her knives. The Drakes in the crowd drew back. Wait. He wasn’t serious?

Then the first Erchirite Spears came storming up the stairs. A full squad—and their spears were lowered behind their shields. They looked just as uneasy, though.

“Wall Lord?”

More Gemscale family soldiers were behind them. Ilvriss looked around. His eyes glittered.

“Soldiers, with me. Your orders are to protect me—if someone blocks your way, you will use those weapons. But do not attack anyone otherwise. Now, forwards!

He strode down the staircase. The Gemscale soldiers were first—the hesitating Gem Regiments followed after a second. Ilvriss came down the stairs three at a time and the crowd backed up. He lifted his sword and they ran. The Wall Lord raced down the tower, bellowing.

“To arms! To the death! With me, Soldiers of Gemscale!

House Emera was not prepared for that. Like the hostile negotiations—this response to the corporate warfare was like kicking sand in someone’s face and seeing them draw a sword.

But they had forgotten. Sometimes that happened. All of Salazsar’s traditions—the Wall Lord had a different feeling about them after being in Liscor.

 

—-

 

“Wall Lord! The Gemscale forces have attacked our tower! They’re storming the floors—”

Wall Lord Rellmel went white under his scales. Grisa shrieked.

“Is he mad? That’s—that’s an actual battle in Salazsar? Stop him!”

“We—he’s leading the Rubirel Guard and the Erchirite Spears along with his family’s soldiers! And Adventurer Shriekblade!”

“How many people has he killed?”

Rellmel squeaked. The [Bodyguard] hesitated.

As a matter of fact, no one. No one was about to fight with the furious Wall Lord, himself a skilled fighter, the Rubirel Guard, and a Named Adventurer along with an entire army at his back.

They were storming up the Emera tower, essentially taking prisoners of every floor on their run up the stairs. The other Walled Families were right behind Ilvriss, though, with considerable forces of their own.

Rellmel thought it was the end of his family at first. But then he realized—they weren’t clashing with Ilvriss’ forces, especially since they were advancing at a run up the stairs. But they might be coming to stop Ilvriss from executing the Emera family’s heads.

No one had expected this from Ilvriss. Even Navine was stunned as she brought some of her guards following Ilvriss. The Emera family was stuck in their tower; the first thing he’d done was have his Erchirite Spears seal the bridges. Actually set up barricades. As if he was actually fighting a war—

“Ilvriss, stop!”

Brilm, Tasilt, Navine, and eight more Wall Lords and Ladies skidded into the reception hall of the Emera family. Rellmel and Grisa were facing Ilvriss with some terrified house guards in front of the Wall Lord.

Shriekblade, two of the Rubirel Guards, Captain Shieldscale—Tasilt flung up a claw.

By order of the Walled Families, stand down all of you! That is an order to the Gem Regiments!”

All of the Drakes present lowered their blades. The Rubirel Guard to exceptional relief. Only Shriekblade did not. To Navine’s incredible relief, she saw Ilvriss had already sheathed his blade.

“Ilvriss, are you mad?”

“Mad? I am quite, Navine. My people have just been attacked. Not me, myself, but my [Administrator], my [Foremen], innocent [Miners] in the streets!”

Ilvriss was panting as Navine strode up to him. He pointed and the two Drakes in the back flinched.

Wall Lord Rellmel. Wall Lady Grisa! I believed we had some kind of fair negotiation. Or would you deny that you were paid for the potion I bought from you?”

“That was no fair negotiation! You pinned us down and stole our heirloom, Ilvriss! Now you come in here and try to threaten us?”

Grisa shouted back. Rellmel was trying to shush her. She had grown confident, seeing the other Wall Lords and Ladies here, assuming that Ilvriss wouldn’t dare do anything.

Rellmel had once assumed that, and mouthed off while surrounded by his buddies to a Gnoll. He might have said something—and yes, the Gnoll had been arrested and charged and it had been essentially one versus fourteen. But he had learned that none of that stopped the first punch to your face.

And Ilvriss had a sword. The Wall Lord pointed past Grisa.

“Wall Lord Rellmel. This is an attack on my company. As head of the Emera family, are you suggesting our companies clash? Because there is no point, I have no time for it, and if you have an outstanding grudge, I suggest we settle this now.

Rellmel gulped. Tasilt and Brilm looked ready to seize their friend. The Wall Lord stepped forwards, sweating.

“The…corporate warfare may have been a step too far, Ilvriss. But my sister and I have cause for grievance! That was a hostile negotiation and I—we—would not have sold the potion under normal circumstances. You must admit, that was unfair.”

“I acknowledge that. But did I not pay more than a fair price?

Ilvriss’ eyes narrowed. Rellmel lifted a clawed finger.

“Price? Yes. But the fact remains that it was a forced sale. Should we bring this up between the Walled Families? Should I hire all the same negotiators to take whatever I want from your vaults?”

Navine hated to admit it, but Rellmel was showing a lot more intelligence in his arguments than Grisa. Ilvriss was in the wrong first off here—even if the reaction had been petty.

“I will not have my company attacked, Rellmel. There are dead Drakes and Gnolls because my people defended themselves. And I will not have them threatened again. Let me be clear: if my employees are attacked, it is already war and this is the enemy stronghold. I will not play at warfare.”

Ilvriss strode forwards. Rellmel flinched, but held his ground.

“Ancestors, Ilvriss! Think about what you’re saying!”

Brilm snapped, appalled at the suggestion. Ilvriss looked at him.

“I want an end, now, Brilm! The Emera family’s word—witnessed by all of you—that no more attacks take place! Or else all the Walled Families of Salazsar will hold Emera to account. This is pointless and it wastes money, time, and lives!”

It was true. Even so, Rellmel looked at Ilvriss.

“You have our potion, Wall Lord. Give it back to us.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Then do you expect us to just take it lying d—”

Navine saw Grisa’s jaw snap shut. She felt her own jaw loosen. Ilvriss had just used his aura on her! The Wall Lord faced Rellmel. Around him, all the Drakes suddenly shuffled back—except for Shriekblade, who scratched at her back as if suddenly itchy. He lowered his voice, twisting a ring on his finger as the outraged Grisa clawed at her mouth and stomped her feet.

“Rellmel, I want your word.”

“I won’t be threatened. If you’re going to draw the blood of fellow Walled Drakes, it’s a civil war, Ilvriss. And you won’t do that.”

Rellmel wanted to wipe the sweat from his brow. Ilvriss studied him.

“That was never my intent. If I wanted to stop reprisals, I’d need your word on it as head of the Emera family. Such that Grisa can’t go behind your back.”

The other Wall Lord winced and Ilvriss knew he was right. He nodded.

“Failing that—I would have to wipe out the entire Emera family. Which I am not willing to do. So. Let’s come to an arrangement. What will it take for you to consider the potion matter closed?”

Rellmel blinked.

“You gave us gold, Ilvriss. But Grisa will never accept it. And I—I think the potion was worth more than just gold, however much.”

Ilvriss nodded shortly.

“So—give me some of the gold back. Return…”

His head tilted up. Rellmel heard him mutter a curse.

“Return four hundred thousand.”

Four hundred—

“Four hundred thousand. And I’ll give you a half—no, a third-share into our adamantium shaft.”

Wall Lord Rellmel’s eyes bulged. Not because it was a bad offer. Far from it. The adamantium would be worth far, far more than that in time. Guaranteed profits for…

“You’re serious.”

“I’m not offering it again. Your word. If Grisa does anything—she won’t. And your promise in front of all the Walled Families, on the Emera bloodline.”

“I…promise.”

Rellmel stared at Ilvriss. He saw the Wall Lord twist his ring. The Wall Lord of the Emera family, dazed, looked around. Navine stared at Ilvriss.

What had he done?

 

—-

 

“One third of the adamantium seam.”

“Co-owned. You know the practice. They’ll divide up the shafts, send their workers in. We’ll have to make sure they don’t unearth monsters which go after our group, but they’ll be responsible for their take.”

The [Administrator] sat back. If he had been furious at Ilvriss for the danger which had caused him to react, he was furious for a different reason now.

“That is one third of the profits that would have kept us flush for the next decade.”

He spoke, very mildly. Ilvriss nodded.

“Yes. But I was aware that the Emera family wouldn’t stop so I had to offer them something. Maybe I could have gone down to a quarter. But—there it is.”

Alrric breathed. This day had not been great. The potential loss…he looked at Ilvriss.

“No one is going to be happy about this. The [Miners] take bonuses on finding more adamantium veins in the seam. It’s good, guaranteed pay. Your father…”

“He nearly tore my tail off.”

Ilvriss sighed. His head still hurt from the shouting. He rubbed at his earholes. Zail Gemscale had expressed his disappointment with his son in no uncertain terms.

“It’s done, Alrric. I’m sorry for the injured and I didn’t want years, even a decade of petty infighting. So listen: here’s what I’m going to do. I demanded money back from Rellmel.”

“You had better. He could just give you all the money back and just take one third of the adamantium seam.”

Ilvriss shrugged.

“I’m placing…a hundred and forty thousand gold pieces. Take from it for all the healing bills first. Every person who was hurt, give them a sizable bonus. Then—issue a company-wide bonus at the end of this week’s pay with the remainder.”

Alrric’s breath caught.

“What, everyone?”

“Everyone. I’ll do the rounds and talk to people. Let’s see. I need to visit Tasilt, Brilm—and then tomorrow morning I’ll be gone.

“What? Where?”

Alrric was having trouble keeping up. Ilvriss looked at him.

“The Walled Families are ready to censure me for my actions. It’s good timing; I was planning on leaving anyways. I’m bound for Oteslia. Apologies for all of this, Alrric. If my father comes, send him towards me.”

He left the Gnoll sitting there, stunned.

 

—-

 

For the first time in as long as he could remember, Ilvriss was losing money. The Drake had always, always had a sound head for business. He took calculated risks. He had made the company wealthy, with few spans of losses.

But now he was spending a fortune. His personal fortune, true, but that was money that should have lasted him into his old age! And he was making objectively bad decisions.

Bad decisions economically. Perhaps he’d ended a feud that would cost a few dozen lives and be inconvenient.

Zail Gemscale would have fought the feud even if it meant a century’s worth of hostility between families. He didn’t understand his son. Had he lost sight of everything?

Yet he still swore on truth spell that he remembered what it was like to be a Wall Lord of Salazsar.

“Leaving.”

Zail stared at Alrric. The [Administrator] sighed.

“I think your son meant to tell you over dinner, Wall Lord. I can direct you to his last location, but he is moving around. Perhaps it would be better to wait for him to find you? Or I can send a [Message] to him if you would care to wait in his office…”

Alrric was hinting. He did not get along with Zail. Fair was fair; Zail did not like a Gnoll working and essentially managing the company.

However, Zail’s dislike of the Gnoll was second-place to his confusion over his son. He almost felt like…he pulled his claw away from the dent in his head.

“You…you don’t know what’s changed about him, do you?”

Alrric hesitated. Both of them knew something had.

“Not in so many words, Wall Lord. However, Wall Lord Ilvriss has pursued his own business with minimal effect on the company, so I’ve not inquired. It’s not my business.”

“No, it’s not. You’re right about this. But the adamantium shaft…”

The Gnoll leaned on his desk.

“That does affect the company, yes. A third of the windfall of windfalls, gone.”

Zail found a seat. He stared at Alrric.

“And now he’s gone off to Oteslia. Same as Navine and my wife. Why?”

“I don’t know, Wall Lord. Perhaps you’d like to…?”

“No, I would not!”

Zail was growing angry. He controlled his breathing; his attendants hovered worriedly behind him.

“My son is making poor decisions for the Gemscale family. I never thought Navine would be a better choice—no, something’s come over him. The war changed him. It happens. You lose someone and…”

He was muttering to himself. Alrric watched with one eye, carefully trying to work. Zail looked up.

“I want to see all the reports. All the figures, how much he’s paying everyone, daily takes from each mining shaft—everything. Put it in his office.”

By their Ancestors. Alrric winced. He’d feared this was coming. Zail had ruled the Gemscale family before Ilvriss and he wanted to get his claws dirty again. He steepled his paws and tried to smile.

“Wall Lord Zail. Your son is managing the company well. Except for this…incident, which I am motivated to believe was in the company’s safety, you’ve seen the quarterly reports.”

“I have. But I’m no longer confident. I want the reports.”

Alrric met the steely gaze of the old Drake. He took a breath. He hadn’t wanted to do this, but he took some small pleasure in it.

“You are not the head of the Gemscale corporation, Wall Lord Zail. Until I receive a formal notice from the Gemscale family, I can and will refuse to both show documentation and take your advice. With respect, sir.”

“You—you dare you…?”

Zail struggled to his feet. His attendants tried to calm him down as he stared at Alrric. The [Administrator] held his gaze.

“I am trying to run the Gemscale company to the best of my abilities, sir. And Wall Lord Ilvriss is the head.”

It was true. But Zail was still furious. He paced back and forth. But what was he going to do? Fire Alrric? He had to get the Gemscale family to replace Ilvriss, and Alrric knew there was little chance of it, even with Ilvriss’ actions. They’d put Navine in charge instead, and a lot of the Gemscale family did not like her, even with Ilvriss’ unprecedented bad sale.

Zail knew it too. The Drake breathed heavily, and Alrric feared he was going to drop dead on his carpet. And wouldn’t that just end the day on the same note as it had begun?

But then the Wall Lord’s eyes narrowed. He took a seat again, even accepted the drink mixed with tonic. He sipped at it, and stared at Alrric.

“My son is leaving. And now one third of the Gemscale miners who were going to be devoted to this new seam have to work the old ones. Faith in our company wavers, and while we’ll live well off the adamantium, this is a blow.”

Literally to one third of their profits. They’d sold off their rights to other seams and would have to work spent ones or just hope they found something new. Alrric sighed.

“Yes, Wall Lord Zail. This would appear to be the situation.”

The Wall Lord nodded. But there was something about his intent gaze that made Alrric think this wasn’t senility. He lowered his quill as the Wall Lord peered at him.

“I want those reports. And you will begin taking my…suggestions, [Administrator]. My son has put you in this position, and you have done—well—over the last decade.”

“Thank you so much, Wall Lord Zail. But I don’t believe—”

“Who owns Seam #213 BE?”

The question caught Alrric off-guard. The Gnoll frowned.

“Seam…?”

He went for his filing cabinet, staring at Zail suspiciously. He found a document of all the current holdings, changed monthly, and pulled it out. Thanks to his filing system, he read…he shrugged.

“The Glasswing family holds it, but I don’t think it’s actually being mined for anything. That’s normal. It’s dead. Tapped.”

All the old gemstones were gone, and if memory served, that area had only ever yielded some magicore and low-grade iron. Not exactly profitable. Zail shook his head.

“No. It’s not. If you dig three hundred feet down and a bit to the southwest, you’d run into another vein. Magical gemstones. And—monsters.”

Alrric lowered his document.

“…That’s a bold claim, Wall Lord Zail. Now, how would you know that?”

The Wall Lord’s gaze was distant. But his eyes were sharp.

“I meant to give it to Ilvriss on my deathbed. It’s hard to buy the seam’s rights without setting something off. A long time ago, I hired a [Diviner]. We…it was a bad time for the Gemscale family. We were looking into—riches. We found it, even got down there, but I had to ask a [Geomancer] to seal it up. To prevent—evidence.”

He meant he was trying to secretly mine another family’s treasures. Alrric bit his tongue.

“And you sat on this knowledge for how long?”

“Fifty years. We could never have mined it in secret. You’d need adventurers. Proper Gem Regiments; the monsters were infesting the magical gemstone deposit. And the Glasswing family has it? Well…if someone was buying up old seams on a whim, especially if the Gemscale corporation looked like it was searching for something…”

“They could rather easily get it for a song. Practically nothing.”

Alrric was slowly pulling out some paper to write a memo. Something casual to the Glasswing’s [Administrator] or [Secretary] or such. How would he do it convincingly? Well, appear to be casual, which told them he was actually desperate, which disguised the fact that…

Zail looked at Alrric.

“Well?”

The [Administrator] met the old Drake’s gaze for a long time. Ilvriss was leaving. And this…he drummed his paws on the table. At last, he nodded.

“I’ll have all the documents sent over to Wall Lord Ilvriss’ office—your temporary office—directly, Wall Lord.”

Zail smiled in satisfaction.

Ilvriss left the next day, with a small entourage. An expedient move given his unpopularity with…everyone. Not only had he chased off the popular Sellme, he’d offended the Walled Families with his direct action.

The Gemscale corporation had a new boss, which turned out to be the old boss. Alrric made a few purchases, and sent some [Deep Miners] out with very specific instructions and the Erchirite Spears that Ilvriss had left in the city, and more security besides. Zail sat in Ilvriss’ office, his immediate family all having left for Oteslia.

It was probably fine.

 

—-

 

Outrage in two Walled Cities. For different reasons. But the end reason was money.

This is unacceptable! I will call on the [Druids]!”

One of the [Researchers] was shouting. Saliss and Xif were ready to shout back, but Lyonette was in charge, now.

At least, of this. She folded her arms.

“Researcher Medivort, you have a faerie flower.”

“But you’ve tampered with it! It’s—”

“…Unable to reproduce? Why would that matter for a man purely devoted to uncovering its effects, [Researcher]?”

Lyonette smiled sweetly at the Human man. He glowered. The little faerie flower was indeed tampered with.

It was a simple process to make it very tricky to grow even cuttings of faerie flowers—and they were already a finicky species. Lyonette gestured.

“We have more petals, stems, or other parts of the flower, Researcher Medivort. Dried and fresh.”

Separated. The [Researcher] turned to his fellows.

“This is a monopoly!”

“Why, yes it is.”

The monarchy enjoyed monopolies. And the [Princess] was still a [Princess]. Well, there was a running battle in Oteslia now.

And unfortunately for the liberal-minded [Herbalists], [Gardeners], and so on, who would like to liberally cultivate the flower for their own ends, any chance-obtained flower that someone happened to have in their pockets rather than in the one now well-guarded location where Saliss’ flowers were being grown—might vanish.

The Gentlemen Callers were playing a game of thieves with Oteslia and they were rather good at what they did. So for the first two days, Lyonette was setting the terms of engagement.

Of course, the First Gardener and [Druids] were weighing in. Neither side was happy, but Lyonette kept pointing out that the flowers were being sold. Just not the flowers themselves.

Fair, it was fair to say they were a plant that should be for all. But they were not even of this world. Oteslia had no idea of how they had been obtained.

Anyways, it was the only real leverage Lyonette had in Oteslia, so she would keep it. The [Druids] saw she was providing it at a reasonable cost—some [Scholars] were working on her projects, others paid for it at fairly low prices compared to Sage’s Grass. But they had to go through her.

They might have forced it, Lyonette believed, if it weren’t for Saliss, Xif, and the threat of Pallass hanging over their heads. Politics.

Speaking of politics, she knew Magnolia Reinhart was in Oteslia and she was wondering if the [Lady] would reach out. Would she wonder why Lyonette was here? She had to know about Erin…ideally, they would not meet. Lyonette had no wish to entangle herself in Magnolia’s scheme.

She missed Mrsha.

 

—-

 

“Politics.”

Wil Kallinad spat the word. Feshi echoed him.

“Politics? I don’t understand it fully. How can they suddenly not provide the medicine?”

The [Lord] ran a hand through his hair. Yerra was sitting, pale with nerves.

“Someone’s taken all the faerie flowers. The ingredients for Yerra’s cure.

“So…does that mean it’s back to toughing it out? Because I can do it!”

Yerra tried to grin. Wil shook his head. Feshi did likewise.

“We just have to get access to it. The [Herbalist] claims this—this person’s put a limit on the sale of flowers and he’s already making medicine for the First Gardener.”

A headache cure! He’d told Wil to go to another [Herbalist], but many were selling the now-extremely precious flowers, rather than using them. Buyers were appearing across the world who wanted even the parts.

Wil hated it. They had to know Yerra needed the medicine! Apparently it was two greedy [Alchemists] from Pallass who were doing this.

“I’m going to speak to them, Yerra. You stay here. Just…relax.”

She had one more dose. The Selphid nodded; she’d been stuffing herself with food after being cured. Then proceeding to ‘empty her stomach’ manually since the Selphid’s body didn’t need to eat as much as the real thing. It was just for taste.

“Feshi, will you come with me?”

Wil wished Venaz or Merrik was here; they might be helpful. But they had stayed at the Meeting of Tribes because Wil thought that was their next destination with Yerra almost cured—or at least, her on the mend and the pain-medicine secured.

This was a hiccup. Feshi nodded.

“Of course. The Weatherfur tribe will help too, if it is possible.”

She checked the dagger at her belt, and Wil touched the sword. Yerra stirred, but he assured her.

“We’re not going to fight.”

It was just them making sure Fetohep’s gifts were safe. They already had invested in anti-[Thief] precautions, but attempts had been made. Well, the Gnolls from the Weatherfur tribe were guarding this place.

Wil Kallinad prevailed on the owner of the faerie flowers at where he had been informed he could find either a ‘Xif’, a ‘Saliss of Lights’—whom Wil was worried about given the Drake’s reputation—

Or a Lion Solstice? She blinked as she opened Mivifa’s door and greeted Wil. He stared at the young woman with red hair. She blinked at the familiar [Strategist] with a few touches of red in his own dark brown hair, bordering on black.

Feshi didn’t blink.

“Are you—from Terandria?”

Both of them exclaimed almost at the same time after introducing themselves. Lion Solstice stared at Wil. He nodded, and her eyes went round.

“Wait. I know you! You can only be Wil Kallinad! House Kallinad’s [Strategist] they sent to the Titan’s school? And you’re—Feshi! I saw you on the television!”

By now, the two were used to their fame. They exchanged a hopeful glance. Wil cleared his throat.

“Yes, Miss Solstice. But we’re still in Oteslia looking for a cure for Yerranola, our friend. I don’t know if you recall…”

“Of course! Have you found it? Oh—you must think the faerie flowers could help!”

“As a matter of fact, we know they can cure her pain. But we heard—”

Wil Kallinad was confused. He had been all set to fight to the death—verbally and socially—to get Yerra’s cure from greedy Drakes hoarding the flowers.

Instead, he found himself drinking tea and talking with Lion Solstice, who was from his home and of course would give them all the flowers he needed!

“It’s not about hoarding it at all. It was stolen from the two [Alchemists]. That’s why Oteslia’s so upset.”

“Ah, you mean illegally grown?”

“Yes. They paid for secrecy, but you know the saying in Pheislant.”

Loose lips bring Drowned Ships.

Wil echoed her and blinked—then grinned, despite himself. So did Lyonette.

Travellers from home. Feshi listened as the two began talking.

“How long have you been in Izril?”

“Just under a year. You just arrived, didn’t you?”

“Yes. And we didn’t get to see much of it. Have you been in Oteslia long?”

“Oh, no. I come from further north. I was around Liscor—”

Liscor? You mean, the Liscor with the soccer games, the door and the dungeon?”

“The very same. I only came south because my friend is—hurt—but you’re from Pheislant! Tell me, please, have you heard anything of the Dawn Concordat’s conflict with Ailendamus?”

Wil swept back his bangs as Feshi politely sniffed at a quiche and nibbled at it.

“My family writes only a bit—are you from around there?”

“I—er—yes. Gaiil-Drome, actually. The forests shelter me.”

“Ah, I visited there twice. I only know what everyone knows. But I’ve been watching every day. I’m hoping the Dawn Concordat can triumph, obviously, but except for the Griffin Prince…bad news.”

“I know. I know; does Pheislant intend to enter the war?”

He grimaced as she leaned forwards.

“Frankly, I doubt it. We clashed with Ailendamus and it was one-sided. But the Order of Seasons might move, although His Majesty probably thinks it unwise. However, if Ailendamus swallows the Dawn Concordat…”

“Would it come to that? Surely the other Kingdoms would declare war.”

Wil reached for a quiche as Feshi sat back, half-listening and feeling as if she were studying the Terandrian kingdoms in class. She looked at Lyonette and then narrowed her eyes. Both Humans were too engrossed to notice.

“Ah, but you say that and yet Ailendamus has performed wars of aggression on multiple kingdoms before. What kind of alliance would seek to overthrow them and would it even work? It’s so good to meet someone else from Terandria.”

Lyonette was smiling.

“It is, it is! No one else has any manners or offers me tea. And when I try to talk about home…please, would you sign something for me? My daughter would love an autograph from Feshi. She’s a huge fan. And I know it’s something you must get asked, but can you talk about Daquin? The sea voyage?”

Wil blinked as she found some paper for him to sign. So did Feshi. But he was only too glad to.

 

—-

 

Three hours later, Feshi stretched as they went outside. As Tkrn and others had observed, if unconsciously, travellers connected. And travellers from roughly the same home meeting abroad connected even more.

“That went well. Although my tail was stiff from sitting on it too long, yes?”

She grinned at Wil. He ducked his head, embarrassed.

“Sorry, Feshi. But it was nice meeting someone from…”

“I understand.”

The Gnoll [Strategist] nodded at him. The two had nearly twenty pieces of faerie flowers, and Lyonette had trusted them with four actual ones at a song. Wil was half-tempted…but Yerra was more important. Besides which, that would be wrong.

“All we need to do is tell the [Herbalist] we want to purchase the pain recipe. Weatherfur Gnolls can probably make it up, right?”

“Our [Shamans] surely can. Then we will go to the Meeting of Tribes.”

“Yes.”

The two students walked along, relieved. Finally something was going right. Feshi kept glancing at Wil. He met her gaze on glance eight.

“So what did you think?”

His eyes were keen. Feshi relaxed.

“I wondered if you had noticed what I noticed.”

“I wonder what you noticed.”

The two students glanced at each other. On the silent count of three, they exchanged notes.

“She smells of a Gnoll, you know. Not—intimately. Young, I think. She said her ‘daughter’, but the ring on her finger does not belong on the finger that says she is married. Nor did I smell that. She’s from Liscor, and she has faerie flowers and stays at Mivifa’s house and knows Saliss of Lights.”

Wil had missed the scents, obviously, and he snapped his fingers as she reminded him about the adventurers.

“I’ve got a bit more, Feshi. Did you notice that she claimed to be from Gaiil-Drome?”

“Was she lying?”

He shrugged.

“She could be from there. But here are my observations: firstly, she never addressed me as a superior, although she used my title several times. I know we’re travellers, but that implies she’s used to familiarity or even thinks we’re of the same rank.”

“Is that salient?”

Feshi tilted her head, trying to emulate what the Professor would say. Wil shrugged.

“I’d argue it is, Feshi. It’s almost instinctual. Second though—her hair’s red.”

“People have red hair.”

“It means more in Terandria. She almost tried to cover it up at first, did you see? I don’t think she expected to meet me. Lastly, she had amazing manners. Every way she sat, the way she offers tea or lets you sip first before she does while making a conversational point…”

He trailed off. Feshi was raising her brows.

“…Do you know much about Calanfer, Feshi?”

“No. I know the war—”

“No, besides that. I need to send a [Message] back home. But I know more since we’re neighbors. Such as the fact that their 6th [Princess] is missing. And…”

Wil glanced over his shoulder.

“…I can’t help but swear I’ve seen her, even outside of maybe a royal portrait. Liscor. Didn’t we see a lot of battles there, when the television was first being invented?”

Feshi was blinking at all the rapid deductions.

“Are you sure, Wil? This is an amazing coincidence, yes?”

“Who else would be travelling in the company of Pallass’ two best [Alchemists]? And have access to a magical flower?”

What Wil didn’t say was that ‘Lion Solstice’, who might be confused with a Lyonette of the House Marquin of Calanfer if he was right, had given him one more big clue. And that was her nature.

He had felt deferential to her, as if he should bow and accede to her will. A [Princess]. And he had a [Lord]’s intuition.

“So what do we do about it? Tell someone, yes? No?”

Wil Kallinad thought as he looked at Feshi. After a moment, he nodded to himself.

“I think, Feshi…we should go to the Meeting of Tribes. She seemed nice.”

Feshi grinned. Not everything they knew had to be used. She nodded, and Wil and she walked off to give Yerra the good news. Wil would investigate to be certain, but he was content to let the [Princess] of Calanfer her secret. She had done him and his friends a good turn.

Besides, he doubted they’d ever meet again. Maybe in a decade. He was bound for the Meeting of Tribes.

 

—-

 

One last thing.

The Meeting of Tribes was full of events. Lehra and her new friends, deals between tribes—and soon, the summit of Chieftains, who would decide on important matters.

Such as, perhaps, the fate of Doombringers, if Krshia Silverfang had her way. But more would also occur there; people would bring forth important secrets to share with the tribes. Knowledge is power, and power would be shared there.

The fate of Gnolls might change. They had to decide on a number of important things, some of which were public knowledge.

The Raskghar would be seen there. They were still in-transit. From Pallass, as a gesture of goodwill.

But one Pallassian had arrived today, having had to run the entire way. Roadwork, her master had called it. And typically, he’d thought it was good for the gonads—if females had them.

She had something to tell the tribes, for all she was of Pallass. A monumental revelation.

Gnolls could cast magic as [Mages] did. Gnolls could be [Mages].

Yes, she was Level 7, having not been able to level fast despite breaking her ‘barrier’ to her class. Yes, she wasn’t a full student. But she had muscles, and Grimalkin had praised her and told her to present herself.

So she did.

“[Fire Bolt].”

She loosed the fiery missile into the air, and followed it with a [Light] spell—and then conjured a little pillar of stone from the ground. Three spells, but barely taxing given Grimalkin’s solid foundations in magic.

[Mage] spells. She was also a [Student], and, dubiously, a [Bodybuilder], both classes she’d gotten while trying to ‘break through’ to her [Mage] class.

Even some of the watching Gnolls looked impressed as she flexed—that wasn’t part of the magic, but Grimalkin rubbed off on his apprentice. Ferkr waited. The Plains Gnolls, the third group she’d demonstrated her magic to, in order to prove Wistram wrong, looked at her.

After a second, they began to applaud. Ferkr sighed—but then heard a voice.

“Good tricks! What are they, artifacts? A wand in your fur?”

She looked at the speaker, an older male Gnoll. He grinned at her. Ferkr shook her head.

“No, this is magic. This is my class. Use an appraisal spell!”

“And how should I cast one? With my own wand?”

He laughed and so did the group. Ferkr looked around, confused.

“Didn’t you see the spells?”

“It’s a nice trick, young Gnoll. But someone tries this every Meeting of Tribes. The last two had it.”

One of the female Gnolls advised her. Ferkr was dumbstruck. This was the third group to see her casting magic and not bat an eye.

Some Gnolls had believed, but these doubters…she lifted her paws.

“I’m not using a wand! I can cast with my bare paws. Listen—my master, Grimalkin of Pallass says that the Gnolls not being [Mages] is a recent belief! We sent an apprentice to Wistram forty years ago, and the rumors are older than that, but it is possible.

“Of course it is. And I’m sure you’ll prove it. Because of all the Gnoll [Mages] I see walking about.”

Her first heckler rolled his eyes and snorted.

They didn’t believe her. Ferkr was stumped. She’d cast a spell in front of them and…she raised her paws.

“I can cast more spells. If you want, you can test me. Get a [Shaman]. I’m serious. Get truth spells, appraisal spells, from scrolls or wands.”

The Gnolls blinked at her. Ferkr looked around, trying to call on Grimalkin’s dignity.

“I am Grimalkin of Pallass’ first Gnoll apprentice, Ferkr! By my fur, I will prove we can cast magic!”

The chuckles faded. She stood there, challenging them and the Gnolls looked at each other.

“I believe you.”

One of the younger Gnolls spoke. He looked at Ferkr.

“If you speak before the Chieftains—I’ll try to become a [Mage].”

“Thank you.”

She smiled at him. The crowd looked at each other, and then began to disperse. Some of the Gnolls apologized.

“Maybe you are a [Mage]. If so—I can find my tribe’s [Shaman]. I’m from Greenpaw. Will you wait?”

“Of course. I’ll perform more magic. As soon as I go to the, um, bathroom.”

One of the Gnolls grinned. He pointed her off and Ferkr stretched as she headed towards one of the smelly tents. Magic. There was another [Mage] among Gnolls, even—although so young and obviously a rare case compared to Ferkr. It was possible. She just…

“Excuse me, Miss. Are you the young Gnoll who claims to be able to cast magic?”

Ferkr turned as a Gnoll approached. She smiled.

“Yes I am. If you want me to show you, I can as soon as—”

“Good.”

The Gnoll smiled. Ferkr felt someone grab her from behind.

It didn’t go as well as the Gnoll thought since Ferkr was strong. She punched one Gnoll hard—but there were eight of them. The [Shaman] tapped his staff as Ferkr went limp. The last thing she saw, as the paws lifted her up and sleep took her, was the markings on one.

A warrior’s markings. A Plains Gnoll warrior’s insignia, showing his tribe.

She saw…an eye…

And then she vanished.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I am exhausted. This month has been good, I think, for chapters. Hard on me.

If you didn’t read the message at the top, go back and consider spreading the word! Yes, this is real. Editors, a contest—if you can shout it out on Twitter or other of the social medias, that would actually help a lot.

I’ll be back in a week’s time, but for now, I must, must rest. I hope this chapter was good, despite me being literally at the end of a burning rope suspended from a cliff over the raging sea and rocks…stamina-wise.

Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next chapter! Look out for it.

 

Oteslia, Eldavin, Shriekblade, Airplanes and lots more by Mg!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/henodus2

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/henodus2

 

Purifier Golem, Orange, Lawyer Gazer and more by Gridcube!

 

Good Corn, Suxhel, Mrsha, and more by KaDraginn!

 

 


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65 thoughts on “8.10

    • In my opinion, this is correct as it is. If you have a young child who bought something “especially” for you, but she mispronounces it…

      • He really hoped it wasn’t any of the fish [she’d bought ‘specialty’] from the Zeres shipment.

        Fish is the subject of the comment in Parentheses, it needs to be part of the root sentence.
        Remove the parenthesised comment and see if the root sentence make sense.

        He really hoped it wasn’t any of the from the Zeres shipment.

        Clearly without the article ‘fish’ this sentence makes no sense at all.

    • Inkar was disappointed to find Peki wearing the empty popcorn basket like a hat, so Oor was sent to take her mare back to the tribe as punishment for eating it all.

      ‘and’ implies the two things occurred simultaneously, whereas one was the result of the other. ‘thus’ or ‘as a result,’ are equally viable terms.

      ————
      so she got one of the courses for Walled Drakes and such.
      Walled Drake?

      I think ‘Walled Drakes’ are those with duties to a walled city as opposed to full mages or military staff. I imagine those tasked with wielding the magic, imbedded into city walls, need to have some magical ability and thus training, to utilise those spells.

    • Or at least, the riding competition wasn’t. Footraces turned out to be Gnoll-only. A curious distinction, perhaps due to the culture of Gnolls.

      Yet Venaz and Peki are allowed to join the footraces.

    • Are you ok, pirateabe?

      Since blasting through the eight million words of The Wandering Inn up to this point, I’ve been anxiously checking for the next chapter (which still reads as password protected). It doesn’t show up in the table of contents, but the ‘next chapter’ link gets to the ‘enter password’ page for 8-11

      Just making sure my favorite binge author is alright out there

      Be well

    • Are you ok pirateaba?
      I think you should rest more I’m worried.

      And I think I noticed a big mistake in this chapter. The gnolls in this chapter don’t run on all fours but in all the preceding chapters they we’re running on all fours.

      Or maybe I’m wrong and didn’t read the previous chapters properly.

    • Hope everything is okay this is one of my favorite stories and I hope your getting some decent rest . Take care of yourself :)

    • The races are both exclusive for gnolls (explaining why Inkarr can’t compete) and yet a minotaur, Garuda, etc compete in the same footrace 😂

      • Makes sense. Remember the last Winstrum chapter?

        Did the gnolls go off and make their own school of magic again?

        Maybe the reason there are no Gnoll mages is because this tribe has been rounding them all up for themselves. Maybe even delved into certain “rituals” that make them look a bit more “feral” looking so to speak?

        Mirsha is a white Gnoll and they seem to have a better knack for magic… So maybe the reason why they wanted her heart was not because she was a white Gnoll, but because she was a [Mage] Gnoll.

        Blood magic was a magic not taught because of the unsettling habit of [Mages] cutting each other up and eating them in their basements.

        Elves have literal magical bones that can work just good as a wand… So maybe the [Blood Mage] line was perhaps A little more literal then we first thought.

        Especially since the Rhskar seem to practice it with their heart ripping ritual and taking the skull of another Gnoll to learn her secrets.

        After all…the Rhskar were once Gnolls so logically… There must have been a point in between when they were slowly stopped being Gnolls.

  1. I am a little bit worried about Mershi. There’s definitely something special about Liscor, and I dont think it’s just Erin. I think the dungeons underneath may be the ruins of Mershi, or perhaps the cause or result of whatever made Mershi disappear. Whatever it is, it’s not good, and Nothing is probably involved.

    • The Ruins of Mershi being Liscor’s dungeon would actually make a lot of sense. The Free Antinium Queen thought that whatever was at the bottom of the dungeon could save the Antinium. Now it has been hinted there could be an entire Relic-Class arsenal and more in Mershi’s Ruins.

      Also Mershi was known to have Dragons defending it, so Drakes betraying Dragon kind would merit the whole Vengeance Dungeon theme it has going on. Definitely fits the horrific relationship the dungeon has with Drakes (ie Skinner’s song and that city full of screaming ‘Drakes’).

      • Mother of Graves being an undead dragon or worse… A [Necromancer] Dragon who is still alive but simply sealed away or “sleeping”.

        That is a terrifying thought.

        Especially since this was the first city to fall… And they had dragons as [Leaders] and [Pact Makers] with the added bonus that current era has at least 2 Walled Cities raising dragons without the other cities knowing about it.

        That this city might have done the same… Only for it to end in tragedy.

        • To build on that:

          Pisces suggested that Az’kerash attacked the drakes to get his hands on dragon bones that power the Walled Cities. Thing is… he attacked Liscor, not the Walled Cities. And Liscor’s walls had no dragon bones used in their making, just really good enchantment spells.

          Willing to bet that dungeon may have been a target of his, not to mention the value of Liscor as a staging ground for him to choke the path through the High Passes.

          Kind of makes one wonder if he isn’t after the Mother of Graves himself.

    • Definitely on to something here. Looking back at Vol 1 Ch 1 Erin discovers the inn after stumbling across a dragon straight after leaving her bedroom for the bathroom back on earth. We’ve heard nothing about this dragon since but it’s less than 1 day away from the inn. Maybe it’s sleeping in the dungeon and the burn was an inadvertent snore. By my count thats four dragons at large in the story. What do others think??

        • Yeah I wondered that seeing when Ryoka meets Teriarch for the first time he is very clear that she is not to defecate or befoul his cave and Erin was on her way to the bathroom when she stumbled across the dragon and may have had an unfortunate involuntary accident. The thing is Teriarch’s cave is in the high passes and that is surely more than 1 days run away for Erin let alone all the other monsters in the high passes. Ergo another Dragon is snoozing near Liscor

          • But didn’t Teriarch say something along the lines of “That human that bypassed all my wards-” when he met Erin? That inconsistency might have just been a result of it being something thrown in at an early stage of the story.

          • No, the dragon Erin met is 100% Teriarch. He even mentions her in some of his chapters. He talks about having to move his cave because someone was able to get in and startle him, which caused him to breathe fire.

  2. So either the plains eye believe magic is a sign of the whole dooombringing thing, though ferkr seems to prove there’s at best a tenuous relation. Or they just hate [mages] as much as they hate doombringers?

    I guess we will have to RAFO on that topic.

    • There is that old theory that the Plain’s Eye Tribe have been killing off Gnoll [Mages] to monopolize magic in the Gnoll Tribes considering their deal is having the most [Shamans]. Although now it’s looking like they steal Gnoll [Mages] for themselves as well.

      They also have that whole Illuminati eye theme going on with their insignia. It makes me wonder if they were behind the Golden Triangle scheme considering Plains Gnolls weren’t hit by it.

        • At some point Rashkar were gnolls. Blood Magic had [Mages] killing and eating each other in their basements. The Rashkar were killing and eating Gnolls to fuel their rituals.

          Unknown tribe has more beast like traits almost like the point in between Raskar and Gnoll… And white fur Gnolls seem to have a better grasp at magic then most.

          Allric daughter also seemed to have a knack or idea about magic as most gnolls gave up on it yet she wanted to read spell books.

          Maybe the Rashkar didn’t want Mrsha because she was a white gnoll… But because she was a [Mage] gnoll?

          Also if Drakes are trying to hide dragon children from the other cities then why wouldn’t A few plains gnolls take up blood magic?

          We did have it hinted that the Gnolls had originally left Winstrum to build their own school of magic… And blood magic was kind of banned in there.

          The more you know the more you realize just how messed up the world can really be!

          • That actually makes a lot of sense. The possibility of Plain’s Eye Tribe using Blood Magic to steal the magic from Gnoll [Mages] and raise their Tribe’s mana pool for more and better [Shamans]. If that is the case, then they have definitely been doing that to Doombringers for much longer and only recently figured out they could get more by targeting Gnoll [Mages] as well.

            It makes Krshia’s comment about the Plain’s Eye Tribes increasing power go from wary to scary as hell given their ‘harvesting’ method:
            “Then they have even more power than last Meeting of Tribes.”

  3. What exactly is the big news this chapter? Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and have no complaints but don’t really see anything as that big news to justify the password.

  4. I’ve done a little editting. I’ve even helped a couple of bad writers with good ideas rewrite them. I think i’ve got a bit of a knack for it. But even if i were a professional, i’d hesitate to take on a project this monumental. I salute the brave souls prepared to do it.

  5. And this is why Erin was not allowed to be here… Because she would have accidentally brought the slow building tension up to the surface for all to see!

    Instead of letting us stew and wait as the fuse for this bomb slowly burns as the audience must sit and wait knowing that soon the disasters shall befall the cast.

    Erin at this point is akin to a lightening rod.

    Yes it means she brings trouble… But have you seen what happens to the buildings and people that lack one? Even if she isn’t there the disasters can still strike.

    Just a few more bodies are left in the wake. Just imagine how had it would have been if Skinner had gotten away… Or if the giant moths didn’t suffer from the rain storm… Or if one silly girl didn’t wave A white flag in an attempt to stop A war.

    The disasters still would have happened… Maybe not as quickly… But there would be more bodies.

    Cross your fingers as we wait to see which disaster goes off first… The one in the walled city… The one at The Meeting of The Tribes… Or the mad [Fallen Wall Lord] who might do the stupid and attack the tribes in an attempt to claim a lost relic?

    Fear the mad and stupid for they will do what you never think anyone would do… Even if it is hugging lit explosives and trying to hug you before they go boom.

  6. Fun fun fun. Kinda good that Erin is having a bit of a nap, lets other plots develop. However she the fav character of most of us, so I hope she isn’t away for the next 6 months.

    One thing that I would really like is a map of Terandria.
    Oh, and show us the loot, been a while since goodies have been found.

  7. I love how Ilvriss goes “a month ago he’d sent her to the wandering inn with a spy to transcribe the conversation”. That’s some quick thinking and adaptive mindset on his part.

    He can’t beat Erin, and his pride won’t let him join her, but he can still figure out how to benefit them both. And it would be both. Because anyone who thinks Erin would be walking out with nothing from such a introduction is underestimating her, and he’s clearly done with that.

  8. Sad, so sad.
    I am sad for some characters, and happy for others. Each chapter brings new light to the lives of these fictional people. Each chapter, be it focused on one character, or on many, always manages to make me care.

    I care about the fate of Ferkr, even though her bearing on the story is minor.

    I find myself contemplating Lyonette’s health, wishing she take care of herself.

    I relish the feeling when Ilvriss has to navigate a complex political situation, and uses his new view of the world, gifted to him by Erin, Zel, and the people of Liscor, to make unpredictable choices, and baffle his opponents.

    I think it is the length of this story that contributes to these feelings. If it were short, i would not have time to develop such an attachment.

    What a journey!

    I hope that you are proud of your art. Thank you for the hard work you have put into it.

    Enjoy your break.

  9. The connections being built between characters from so many walks of life is just heartwarming to read about. I feel like this entire Volume so far has been delivering on getting the right people in the right room at the right time for the right shenanigans and I love every bit of it.

    That being said, I seriously can’t wait for a sparring match between Peki, Ryoka and/or Garia. Honestly I’d be happy if the entire Meeting of the Tribes just sort of katamari balled their way up to Liscor.

    Though I do not have confidence that the Meeting of the Tribes will end without some hefty conflict (i.e.: Tribal War, Rando-Az’kerrash attack, one doombringer showing up and sending everyone into a tizzy, etc.).

  10. So… I guess ferkr is, in fact, one of the hidden doombringers? And plains eye knows doombringers have magical talent and kills them off, whenever one shows at the meeting?

      • Not so much a doombringer (aka white fur), but the Plain’s Eyes may think so. Hmmm…..

        No matter what, I hope, he survives. I want Gnolls to get mages back.

          • She could but it would be weird if she turns out to have been doing that all this time. We have gotten some chapters with her, that’s a huge ommission. Plus, we saw Doombringers want nothing to do with the Tribes. Hell, they hide their true nature even among City Gnolls, no way a Doombringer was working so hard at becoming a mage just to come back to the Tribes that would murder her.

            I also think the Plain’s Eye believes all Gnoll mages = Doombringers but that can’t be true.

  11. Something I didn’t understand…

    Why can’t Ilvriss return the Potion of Restoration?
    They only used one drop on Erin and he knows it doesn’t work.

    He could compensate the other family for the used drop and end that “war” without these losses on adamantium.

    • ilvriss is not a rational actor.

      we cheer because he is getting things done and being proactive but he is deeply into a mental breakdown.

      careful responses given a lot of thought before acting are not to be expected.

      Outside of him just wanting to bull through and lashing out though I agree that he could resolve the issue he caused with a fraction of the material and political cost.

      I can only assume the super diplomat squad assumed he had some plan for the possible ways of retaliating his victims could use when he gave them the mission so no one realized he is just breaking down and lashing out and so no one realized he needs advice and plans for the aftermath.

      Or it could be that is just a social fuckup in general and never had the chance to really show it before, could be similar to magnolia who is also very good at making money but should be kept away from any policy decisions or diplomacy due to complete lack of ability.

      • Long answer short?

        He can’t hand back the potion for three reasons.

        1. He is a drake. They do not give items back. It’s mine now.

        2. Just because the potion didn’t work doesn’t mean he knows why it didn’t work. Why give up the potion knowing that it could still work, but they were missing a key piece of knowledge.

        3. She was going to sell it. If The Necromancer gets his hands on it than that is one less potion that could be used to help everyone else. Ivriss is not working in ‘calm drake mode’ because Erin fell and he feels like he is working on a timer.

        Any moment he might mess up and have The Necromancer go after him. Worse The Necromancer might be building up an army and taking out key players before he attacks.

        Just look at the Thorns. They were going after high level humans! Sure before he wouldn’t have cared, but at this point every high level person that dies is one less player. Why bother playing the court of politics when WAR is slowly comming.

        Either Ivriss pulls out the drakes and points as the [Necromancer] shouting “There he is! Get him!” or The Necromancer returns unleashing the undead armies for Round 2.

        In essence he is playing the general/noble who is banging their head while the rest of the nobles are talking about politics when the enemy is right outside their walls. Sure nobody else had figured this out yet… but Ivriss has yet to figure out who is useful, can be trusted, and more importantly… not going to screw it up.

        The Spider could have died if they didn’t have one of their party members because she knew how to bargain with him. Ivriss is building his team, his army, and preparing for a war nobody else has realized is about to come.

        Skills in diplomacy are expected to deuterate when your opponent can make undead puppets to replace high position individuals.

    • Nah. The City of Stars was a Walled City with skyscrapers. Even if it’s in ruins, they should still be massive.

      The VILLAGE of the dead does not sound massive.

  12. Wow I am finally finished reading this. That was awesome.

    I will write a longer comment eventually on book 6, 7 and 8, but for now I just want to say thank you for writing this, its awesome. The world-building is amazing, the characters complex, well written, likeable and fascinating, and the story is great.

    I really hope Erin gets back though, I am worried for her :(
    I am glad Ryoka heard from Fierre though, I were getting really worried.

  13. Without going back and checking the references before asking this question, could the Village of the Dead be just an edge of the City of the Stars? Outlying village just outside/against the wall…

    • The Village of the Dead was where the [Necromancer] before The Necromancer came and set up shop.

      City of Stars was lost before humans set foot. So unless Village of the Dead is able to surround a Drake City we can probably assume that the humans have already looked out the village…

      Unless it is plugged between two mountains and has a lot of dangerous monsters preventing people from walking around it.

      Best shot? The city is buried underneath the Village of the Dead and even then that is not a lot to go on.

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